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Why it’s time to reimagine long-term care facilities

April 13, 2020

By Alex Murphy and Pamela Butvin

As the elderly population increases worldwide, two Stantec designers are helping ensure long-term care facilities are inclusive, safe, and energy efficient

Stantec design associate Pamela Butvin (Calgary, Alberta) remembers visiting her grandparents in long-term care facilities when she was a teenager. The staff was wonderful . . . but the facilities weren’t. They felt too cold. Too sterile. As if they were set up solely to keep people alive, rather than to help them live. 

Now, with degrees in environmental studies and architecture, as well as 25 years of professional experience, Pamela is helping to change that. Partially motivated by watching her husband navigate the world from his wheelchair, Pamela has a passion for increasing the inclusivity and effectiveness of education and healthcare facilities. 

Recently, her mom has become a motivator, too. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to think about how my own mother might live in her later years,” Pamela says. “It’s imperative for us to consider what changes we can make now to elevate the quality of life for future seniors.”

Stantec designs healthcare facilities that feel like home and develops adjacent community amenities in a way that allows those in residential care to intermingle with the wider population whenever possible.

A changing population drives a need to adapt

Declining birth rates, improved healthcare, and longer life expectancies are causing the global population of people 65 and over to grow faster than all other age groups. Every month, 4,000 people in Alberta, Canada turn 65. The United Nations predicts the number of people over 80 to triple by 2050. Pamela believes we must change how we support seniors because they expect a more fulfilling and active life as they age than previous generations.

She and her team have partnered with a Calgary care provider, the Brenda Strafford Foundation, to understand how design can best support quality of life for seniors. The team is focused on people with dementia, another population on the rise worldwide—82 million by 2030, 152 million by 2050, according to World Health Organization projections. 

The team’s work involves research and community engagement sessions to determine how well Alberta’s senior facilities and services meet the needs of its older population and what opportunities there are for improvement. 

The research was supported by Greenlight funding from Stantec’s Innovation Office. Findings have identified several areas that communities can address to increase the safety, friendliness, inclusivity, and accessibility of spaces for those living with dementia. These improvements will help accommodate changes that occur in those individuals’ vision, hearing, mobility, and mental capacity. 

From fireworks to a career in sustainable design

Like Pamela, Stantec senior engineer Alex Murphy (Melbourne, Australia) was set on the path toward his work on care facilities during childhood. But instead of being driven by the health of relatives, he was motivated by a deep concern for our planet’s health.

“When I was younger, my mom would take me to watch the Australia Day fireworks,” he says. “Everyone would ‘ooh and aah’ over their beauty, while I would agonize about the pollution they created.”

That experience contributed to Alex studying engineering and focusing his career on renewable energy and sustainability. With a growing number of senior care facilities opening in Australia, the sector was a natural fit for Alex.

“The energy required for a facility that supports 100 to 200 beds is significant,” he says. “This means there’s also a big opportunity for environmental and economic returns.”

Residential care companies in Australia have acknowledged this opportunity and are working to achieve energy savings for many reasons. Chief among them are the rapidly rising costs of senior care. Providers are eager to control costs and pass savings along to residents.

Solar PV panels like these are improving the energy efficiency of senior care facilities in Australia.

Partnering with Australia’s largest residential care provider

Alex is part of a Stantec team that has partnered with one of Australia’s largest residential care providers, Opal Aged Care, to support its nation-wide energy efficiency program. Opal is installing solar photovoltaic (PV) panels to cut onsite grid electricity use and greenhouse gas emissions.

Designing solar paneling to retrofit existing facilities is generally an easy task; there’s a wealth of previous energy usage data available. But Opal wanted to use renewable energy for new-build facilities as well.

“When you’re trying to understand the power consumption for a new building, you have to make a prediction,” Alex says. “The precedent for this was to design for peak demand. But this resulted in expensive, oversized systems that weren’t fully utilized.”

Knowing there could be a more cost-efficient method, Alex and the Stantec team worked with Opal to build electricity profiles for their Alfred Cove, Applecross, Carine, Springwood, Halls Head, Toukley, and Willows facilities. The team collected electricity meter data from other locations then normalized the data based on the number of beds and other factors to understand not just peak use, but also daily, weekly, and seasonal variations. This resulted in appropriately sized solar installations that meet the needs of each new facility.

“Data has fundamentally changed the way we approach design,” Alex says. Data has also changed the way care providers approach their operations. “We ask clients to think about process changes they could make to shift their energy usage to times when the solar PV system is generating power. This might mean doing more laundry in the daylight hours, for example. There may be also opportunities to reduce their loads overall. It’s a win-win for everyone.”

Inclusive, safe communities require a holistic view

The primary goal of most people with dementia is to remain safely at home and delay admission to long-term care for as long as possible. For example, Canada’s national strategy includes “care closer to home,” with a person-centered integrated care model. Alongside changes in dementia care philosophy, providers of residential care internationally have moved to adopt this person-centered approach as well.

The work Stantec is doing in—and on the rooftops of—long-term care facilities is exciting. But Pamela is quick to point out that best-in-class design for seniors, including those with dementia, goes beyond the physical structures. It includes integration across the community, continuing care and acute care sectors, with a whole-systems approach to governance, regulation, and incentive design. COVID-19 has revealed this approach is crucial for the safety of our seniors.

“Creating a dementia-friendly community doesn’t mean building a locked-door care facility as was often done in the past,” Pamela says. “It means designing a world that allows those individuals to safely intermingle and exist within the wider population as much as possible.”

Alex and the Stantec team in Australia are also thinking big. They’re ready to help senior care clients explore how they can share energy with neighboring facilities in the future.

“Previously, the biggest challenge was how to change our way of thinking,” Alex says. “Now we’ve done that, and we need to help that shift play out in the built environment.”

Designing with community—and sustainability—in mind is simply good practice for any project, Pamela and Alex explain. We all benefit from an inclusive and environmentally focused approach: a space that is comfortable for people with dementia will be comfortable for everyone and an energy-efficient design will be a win for the planet.

About this article
This article is part of an ongoing series that features projects funded by Stantec’s Innovation Office, which celebrates and supports employee ideas that benefit our clients, communities, and Company. 

  • Alex Murphy

    Working with our team in Melbourne, Alex is a senior energy and sustainability engineer working with our team in Melbourne. He brings a thorough understanding of both the technical and financial aspects of projects.

    Contact Alex
  • Pamela Butvin
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