Design-led Innovations for Active Ageing in Antwerp

Client: DAA Project
Design Agency: Yellow Window and Namahn
Project Partner: Design Flanders
Location: Belgium

The loneliness of elderly. Design-led Innovations for Active Ageing in Antwerp

What was the problem?

In this project, the conflict is the ageing of the general population and its associated loneliness as one of its major problems. The goal of this project is to prevent, detect and remedy that isolation of elderly people.

What happened?

The designers in this specific project had to consider the changing needs and expectations of the ‘baby boom’ generation. This younger generation of elders wishes to act more independently, belong to a larger whole and does not just accept their situation. This ‘newer’ group is thus unlike the current elderly generation, mostly born before the second World War. On top of this specific focus, the designed solution in this project also had to strengthen the role of the care system in Antwerp, without additional staff or resources.

In their study of the situation, the designers discovered the difference between social loneliness and emotional loneliness. The socially isolated have fewer social contacts. The emotionally isolated have enough contacts but cannot relate to them. Most care nowadays goes to social loneliness, which –on its own– is not always effective. Emotional loneliness is often left out of the services aimed towards the elderly, and thus represents a lack in their well-being. The designers thus focused specifically on this item, and studied the underlying reasons for emotional loneliness using ‘cultural probes’.

The result hereof was that elderly mainly aimed for ‘meaning’. They want to ‘mean something’ or simply ‘have something to do’. The exercises (diaries, photo books) very often highlighted that feeling of uselessness, which is very confrontational. The design challenge was therefore reframed: “How can we ensure that seniors find a continuous or new goal in their lives, and thus enjoy meaningful contacts?”

What was the result?

The solution for the problem of emotional loneliness of elderly appeared to be in self-organization. The elderly in the day center are now more free in helping out the staff, voluntarily take up tasks, organize activities, etc. The responsibilities they can take up now, give them a sense of belonging in the system and the feeling of being useful for the community.


This however required a clear framework within the care system, including: good prerequisites (anyone may participate irrespective of their physical condition, the management must participate, the seniors are allowed to fail, …), good communication about past and coming actions, available tools for the seniors (idea wall with cards, photos, …), adapted activities (household tasks, DIY activities, leisure, …) and a profound training of the staff to ensure the seniors can further use their talents. Ultimately a toolkit was created in co-operation with the staff.

The complete design process followed in this project ensured that the organization of the care system is clearly modified, that other organizations for the elderly can also apply this work method in the future and that, more seniors now have a goal in life and thus become more happy, active and healthy seniors.


To find out more about this case study please contact Annelies Thoelen at Design Flanders.

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