The Age Boom: An Excerpt from IMAGINE

12.10.183 min read

As people live longer and the global population gets older, we need to rethink the living environments of elderly people to ensure their participation and social interaction in communities.

A major demographic shift is underway. With a few regional exceptions, the global population is getting older. Our housing needs are changing, which is another reason to rethink how we design our cities. The living environment of elderly people is crucial to allow the “new ageing generation” to stay healthy and social and to keep participating in society.

The number of people older than 60 will rise from about 1 billion today to 2.1 billion in 2050, according to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. That means that 22 percent of the world’s population will be over 60, while in countries such as Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States, almost one in three people will be 60 or older. Globally, the number of people over 80 will more than triple, from 137 million to 425 million.

This new elderly generation will have far fewer family members to look after them, and specifically fewer younger persons to turn to when in need. That means it’s vital that we design new types of living environment for them – environments that provide social support structures and a sense of purpose, and that play a major role in the longevity and overall health of this group.

We believe that shared living could provide new and improved models of housing and help elderly people continue to participate in communities, interact socially and remain physically and mentally active. Shared-living spaces could be designed for multiple generations, bringing people of all ages together and creating more meaningful and supportive communities that would benefit everyone. Elderly people in a community (who are more likely to have spare time) could help look after the children, which would not only give them a greater sense of purpose and more of a social life, it would also benefit the children and the parents alike, who in turn would be on hand to look after the elderly people.

Multiple generations under one roof

The concept of intergenerational living has gained traction in recent years. The idea is that younger and older people live together in supportive communities, where the needs of both groups are acknowledged and met. It harks back to the early 20th century, when multiple generations of families lived under one roof. After the Second World War, and the dawn of inexpensive, standardised housing, the trend waned. Today, shared-living innovators are revisiting the idea by launching retirement homes where students live on-site. Below are two examples.


Humanitas is a long-term care facility in the Dutch town of Deventer. In exchange for 30 hours of volunteer work per month, students are able to stay in vacant rooms free of charge. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement at a time when cuts to elderly-care budgets are keenly felt and students are struggling with a high cost of living. One young resident, Jurrien Mentink, told the BBC: “I don’t pay rent, so that’s €30,000 I’ve saved in comparison to my friends who live in student housing.” But that’s not the only reason to live at Humanitas, he says. Mentink and the other students say they are genuinely interested in improving the lives of the older residents and do so in different ways – whether that’s preparing and hosting evening meals in the dining room, helping residents exercise, or simply sitting down to talk. “What I’ve learned here is to respect all of the older people in our society,” says Mentink.

Since Humanitas opened its doors to students in 2012, two more nursing homes have followed suit in the Netherlands, while a similar programme was recently introduced in the French city of Lyon.

Generationernes Hus

Go big: An ambitious intergenerational housing project in the Danish municipality of Aarhus. Visualised by architecture firms AART and FORCE4, and landscape architects Møller & Grønborg, Generationernes Hus would combine housing typologies for a diverse group, including young people, families, senior citizens and disabled people, with shared facilities such as a kindergarten, kitchens and common areas within its 27,000 sq m footprint.

“It is extremely important to make housing that improves the possibility of valuable interaction,” says one of the project’s architects, Kathrine Hegner Stærmose. “We wanted residents to be able to participate in the community on their own terms.” If realised, Generationernes Hus would be a blueprint for how to create complex, intergenerational shared-living communities on a large scale.