Welcome to the Sleepover Project™, an enduring exercise of discovery and research launched more than ten years ago by the founders of D2 Architecture, then leaders in CSD Architects out of Baltimore.  Born of optimism and pragmatism, the idea was that while our architectural staff (and friends) were temporarily underemployed during the 2008-2009 recession, we could learn better how to design for seniors by BEING a senior for a day, for 24 hours, and staying overnight in a facility setting. 

Since then, more than thirty “sleepers” equipped with pajamas and a fill-in-the-blank journal have documented their findings on such topics as lighting, doors, sounds, smells, food, landscaping, and dozens more.  Each journal records a delightful and illuminating personal experience, but together they have – and will more formally – compose a systematic means of improving the built environment to the benefit of thousands of caretakers, owners, marketers, industry leaders, designers, seniors (the stars of the show), and their adult children.

The enthusiastic anticipation of local EDs and DONs alone has signaled to us, the creators and participants in the Sleepover Project™, just how impactful our mission has been and how well it will be received once the research is complete (it will never be complete!) and its findings and derivative recommendations organized into a useful format for distribution.  Lord willing, that taxonomical work will be completed in the next year.  Until then we invite you to a sneak preview featuring journal excerpts and videos that explain the project more fully and reveal a few good ideas we have picked up along the way. Enjoy!

Esther Walker

Gender: Female
Assigned Age: 85
Medical Condition: Recovering from a broken hip
Physical Limitations: Dependent on using a walker for mobility
Living Space: Studio apartment with a living room, kitchenette, bathroom & walk-in closet

Our findings come from a normally able-bodied 31-year-old senior living designer in the DFW area.

On May 11, Esther entered an assisted living community in Texas, transforming into the role of an 85-year-old resident who was recovering from a broken hip.  She was mobile by foot through the use of her walker.  In her “real” life she wasn’t previously aware of how incredibly frustrating and challenging it would be to use a walker. Until now…

Esther - Sketch_apt room

Walker Wars
With her sketchpad and pens laying on the seat of her walker (a transportation technique she learned from observing fellow residents), Esther set out for her maiden stroll. Paying close attention to the effects of every movement she made with the walker – from going over the smallest bump in the floor to opening a door and crossing its threshold – the struggles of senior living became ever apparent.

Realizing that the walker essentially doubled the surface area that her body took up on the floor, she found her maneuverability quite challenging.  In small spaces like showers and bathrooms, her maneuverability became exceedingly challenging since there wasn’t always enough room for her and the walker to explore a full range of motion.

In rooms and areas designed to comply with ADA regulations and with seemingly ample space, she found the act of pulling a door open was most difficult.  In her studio apartment, for example, the narrow width of the corridor inside the unit made it a challenge to exit the apartment with the walker.  “It was like dancing with the door,” she says.  It didn’t help matters that some threshold detailing protruded half an inch above the floor, making it difficult to push the walker over the uneven surfaces.

Esther - Sketch_Walker Rotation

Esther learned that with the walker in the way, she was forced to go back and forth while pivoting her body – practically doing a full circle just to go through a doorway.  Also, how the doors operate became an increasing concern for her.  She couldn’t help to think that while it would be more expensive, automating the door through push-button technology would be much safer, simpler, and comfortable for residents.  In this particular facility, Esther observed that nearly 100% of residents used walkers, which further underscored the need for greater accessibility for disabled or weak seniors passing through doorways.

Pushing the door open was not quite as difficult as pulling.  Many residents kick the door, which alleviates them from bending their backs.  Residents don’t worry much about kicking the doors.  When asked if she was concerned about scuffing the door, one resident said, “There’s a kick plate on the door.”

Lean on Me
From her mock hip injury, Esther quickly noticed that many seniors who suffer from injury or illness could only walk a few steps before they needed to lean on something to support their weight.  While amble handrails were placed in her facility, she noticed that in large rooms – like public dining rooms – seniors use furniture in place of handrails. Esther notes that now when working on a project and she sees a public space, she thinks more about a seniors’ limited mobility and how the type of furniture or its placement may help give seniors something extra to lean on.

Until We Walk in Their Shoes…We Have No Idea
Within the past few weeks of her 24-hour sleepover, Esther has already applied the knowledge she gained from her observations in practical ways.  She sees things in construction drawing or in design-development that she instinctively knows could be improved through better and more considerate design practices.

One of the most inspiring things Esther and all of our sleepers are reporting about is that they never would have learned the things they learned unless they were walking in the shoes of seniors.

Esther says:

“I was using that walker, and really paying attention to how I was affected by even the smallest obstruction or any impediments.  Comparing it with how able-bodied I was an hour before.  There’s no possible way I could have even known to be a better designer in that way, had I not simulated the experiences…it was frustrating for me to face my own knowledge being so limited.  I felt selfish knowing that people live in this manner for 10 years or more.  It upset me that there is an entire field of architecture, and we are only scratching the surface [on senior living] now.  A lot of this has been ignored by us as architects.  We need to show more compassion for seniors in every aspect of our designs.”