Dr. Renate Narten
Interview of May 07, 2012 with Birgit Kramer
Dr. Narten, you are an expert on the topic of housing in later life. Since when are you involved in this subject?
Since my dissertation on the topic of “ Housing needs of older women” at the end of the 1980’s. After finishing my dissertation, I received assignments and inquiries to write planning recommendations or edit research projects. So I just continued with this topic.
In 1996 you founded the “Büro für sozialräumliche Forschung und Beratung” in Hannover. What exactly is your research contained of and who is the target group for your proposals?
I research housing needs of the elderly and living alternatives to nursing homes. My consulting activities targets at everybody that develops dwelling projects for the elderly, builds barrier- free houses or wants do disassemble barriers in existing houses and home environments. And orders come mainly from ministries, communities, housing associations, welfare associations and sometimes from architects that require my expertise for their building projects.
When we look at the situation in Germany, how age adequate are our apartments and houses?
Most of the apartments and houses are not age adequate in their structural requirements. But they often have advantages for living in later life that are just as important, like offering familiar living in a familiar residential area of a well known neighbourhood. This has positive effects on life satisfaction, the orientation (with dementia), social integration and participation.
Many apartments and houses have to be adapted subsequently for the changing needs of older people. What are the main reasons for the need of this adjustment?
The main reasons for adjustment are in the bathrooms and the entrances to the house, to the individual rooms and terrace. In the bathrooms for example, the toilets that might need raised seats; the sinks that need to be able to be driven under; the mirror you want to look into while sitting; enough handles and first of all movement areas. Of course it is also about the access to bathtubs and a barrier-free shower. Bathroom doors have to be wide enough und fully accessible to be able to drive through with a walker or wheelchair. The accessibility to windows has to be assured, so the window can be opened without help. So a window shouldn’t be behind the toilet or bathtub. Those are typical adjustment needs in the bathroom.
The entrance to houses and to individual rooms must be wide enough and fully accessible. The topic wheelchairs is secondary today, the main topic are the walkers. We have a lot more people with a walker than a wheelchair. A walker is almost standard equipment of an older person and therefore all apartments should be adapted to it.
The use of a walker has similar demands on the apartment then a wheelchair, only the turning circle is smaller.
One area that is often underestimated is the entrance to the balcony. The door is often too narrow and has difficult thresholds that are divided repeatedly and with various level changes. Especially here, an even level build would have been appropriate to make it easier for people with reduced mobility to at least be able to access the balcony or terrace.
What measures need to be taken to change this problem?
There are many tools, for example to ease accessibility and make sanitary installations of better use. Examples for tools are handrails on both sides of the stairway and handles on all necessary places. There are stairs and platform lifts for overcoming steps, mobile and flexible adjustable ramps, bathtub lifts and bath boards. Actually, there are quite a few smaller and bigger tools. But when necessary moving spaces or doors are too small, building alterations are required.
And what about new buildings? Are older people and preventative planning for older age considered by now?
There are more building owners now, that consider the aspects of accessibility in their new buildings. Responsible for this are the broad discussions in public, an increasing qualification of architects and craftsmen in this area as well as extended offers of attractive projects in specialist shops.
But still today, new buildings have to be upgraded and adjusted. Why do you think houses are still being build in the old standard?
Those who still build by the old standard have not realized that age and handicap is not a sudden isolated appearance but belongs to a normal course of life. And politicians, that ask how many percentage of age adequate dwellings we need, have not understood that every person grows old and does not want to move out of his or her apartment because of age related limitations. So it is this stereotyped thinking, in which people are sorted by their life situations, for whom specific offers have to be developed. That stands in the way of the widespread implementation of barrier-free building.
Is there something like a checklist on which architects and building owners can orientate themselves on?
There are many brochures on barrier-free and age adequate construction that also contain checklists. But mainly there is the DIN standard on which everybody can get ones bearing. The problem is that those norms and checklists are not considered because it is being thought that they are only necessary for building projects for older and handicapped people.
If we would build only age adequate from now on, could it be a problem because younger people and families do not want to live in age adequate apartments and houses?
Age adequate houses are also comfortable for younger people, because they have less barriers and more moving space. Wide doors, enough moving areas, accessibility to windows and similar attributes of a age adequate apartment are comfort features and are experienced as pleasant, regardless of age. There are no disadvantages, only advantages. Especially young people and families profit from more room, more freedom of movement and from doors that are wide enough for walkers and wheelchairs if necessary baby carriages.
Maybe you can describe how age adequate you live yourself?
I don’t even live age adequate because at a younger age I bought an apartment in an older building that has all the typical deficiencies of accessibility that you normally find in older houses. Many people my age often have to make the decision whether to either fix the existing deficiencies through structural adjustment and conversion or rather move into an adequate apartment. The decision depends mainly on the social environment.
Frau Dr.-Ing. Renate Narten M.A. wurde 1952 in Hannover geboren. Sie studierte Soziologie, Politik und Stadtplanung. Von 1979 bis 1985 war sie wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin in der Hochschulforschung, von 1985 – 1996 wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin und Lehrbeauftragte am Institut für Architektur- und Planungstheorie der Universität Hannover, Fachgebiet „Architektursoziologie“. 1996 gründete Frau Dr. Narten das Büro für sozialräumliche Forschung und Beratung in Hannover mit dem Arbeitsschwerpunkt „Wohnen im Alter“.