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Social participation and autonomy

Explore how the built environment can impact the ability for older people to participate
Older people in street demonstrating
© Carey Curtis CC BY-NC-SA

A broad range of characteristics create a supportive urban community for older people.

The built environment and social connectedness

Social interactions are an integral part of one’s general wellbeing, and the built environment plays a unique role in shaping how and where people interact, from the home environment to the public realm. For example, the arrangement of a city’s physical spaces determines:

  • where people gather to socialise
  • how people commute between home and work
  • who people cross paths with in daily routines.

Social isolation

Loneliness and social isolation are major problems for older adults and are associated with adverse mental and physical health consequences. A recent review identified a wide range of health outcomes associated with loneliness and social isolation including:

  • depression
  • cardiovascular disease
  • quality of life
  • general health
  • biological markers of health
  • cognitive function
  • mortality.

According to research, chronically lonely older people also report less exercise, more tobacco use, a greater number of chronic illnesses, higher depression scores and greater average number of nursing home stays than those who are not lonely.

The mechanisms by which social isolation and loneliness impact upon health are not well understood, but are thought to influence:

  • health behaviours
  • sleep
  • vital exhaustion
  • social connectedness.

Older people are particularly vulnerable to loneliness and social isolation due to deteriorating physical health, the death of spouses and partners, being more likely to live alone and having fewer confiding relationships.

As the ability to engage in activities becomes more limited, the surrounding environment can take on a more central role in preserving a sense of self: home and neighbourhood are repositories of meaning and memory.

Social connectedness

Feelings of social connectedness among older people in cities are limited by environments that encourage isolation, planning processes that exclude the expertise and perspectives of older people, and housing options that restrict one’s ability to stay in their communities as they age. The right set of planning and design approaches can help to address these challenges and cultivate a sense of support and belonging.

© RMIT Europe and EIT Urban Mobility
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Inclusive Mobility for an Ageing Population

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