Key learnings when it comes to designing much-needed health and aged care services to keep Australian seniors in their rural communities

By Don Marshall, Health Sector Lead – QLD, Partner with ThomsonAdsett

Imagine having spent your entire life working the family farm in rural Australia only to retire and be forced to leave the area you love because there are inadequate health care or residential aged care facilities to meet your needs.

It is a heartbreaking scene being played out across Australia every day as rural communities struggle to find the funding, support and services needed to keep ageing locals safely and comfortably within their communities.

When there is a lack of local services available, many in regional and rural areas are forced to travel sometimes large distances to receive the care they need. When the service needed is residential aged care, it can mean leaving the home, farm, loved ones, established networks and community for good, which can be to the detriment of the individual, their family and the community as a whole.

For a residential aged care resident and their family, maintaining regular – and where possible, close – contact is of paramount importance and this should be fostered and encouraged in the design process.

Community engagement key to meeting need

The bridge between community need and adequate health and aged care services can be as simple as engaging that community to find out what is needed and work collaboratively to realise this.

In the past 10 years, at ThomsonAdsett, we have worked with communities to design and build 15 multipurpose health services (MPHS) across Queensland and NSW, delivering a mix of acute care and residential aged care services.

Each time our work has started with understanding the demographic making up each community, what their needs as a community are now, and what can reasonably be expected to be their needs into the future.

One of the most satisfying aspects of our work on MPHSs to date is seeing the NSW and QLD State Governments have well established methods of seeking community engagement because they understand these projects help to keep communities intact.

Of the 15 MPHSs we have designed, there are some principles which remain constant in our work but there are also unique characteristics of each, reflecting the population of individual areas.

No one solution for every community

While the medical and physical needs of those living in residential aged care will be similar in both city and country areas, their emotional and spatial needs may be quite different.

In some regions, the community clearly demonstrates a desire to incorporate the outdoors into the design of residential health services – either aged or acute care – reflecting on the connection residents have with the land.

For others, facilitating engagement between residents of aged care services and the rest of the community, ensuring they feel embraced and included in what is happening in their town, is of paramount importance.

Rural communities are very well connected, resilient and determined as well as being great advocates.

Having personally visited relatives living in residential aged care, I have seen the difference it makes when staff go out of their way to bring a little bit of the farm experience into the residential environment.

As architects, we seek to maximise the connection to nature by orienting the building to views of the landscape and sunlight and daylight, providing appropriate private and communal spaces for residents, minimising travel distances for staff and providing a homelike environment for residents by getting the balance right between infection-control and amenity.

Residential aged care changing to meet community expectations

With a wider understanding of the benefits of keeping seniors connected to their community as they age, there is a growing push to ensure older Australians are able to access the residential aged care needed within their own community.

Rather than having to sell the family farm and shift sometimes large distances to receive residential care as they get older, communities are now pushing for the developing of MPHS to provide the necessary care to the wider community from birth to death.

It is an inspiring model which is changing the way we think about aged care and how it can be delivered and has some important implications for how we approach the design of MPHS.

This article was originally published in Health Times Magazine. Click here to view

Image shows: The Baralaba Multipurpose Health Service, Queensland.