The architecture of aging

How one graduate student is bridging the gap between gerontology and architecture
By Lindley Lund

Holly EllisGrowing up in a family of designers, Holly Ellis always knew that she wanted to be an architect, so when she enrolled at Kansas State University in 2019, the Master of Architecture program in the College of Architecture, Planning & Design felt like a natural fit.

It was a personal experience, though, that ultimately shaped Ellis’ career and research trajectory.

“Both sides of my family have a long history of memory care problems,” said Ellis, who often visited family in senior living residences as a teenager. “That’s why I worked in a nursing home at the beginning of my college career.”

During her time in those residences, Ellis observed the profound effect that physical spaces had on residents’ health and quality of life. This realization inspired her to pursue research to improve seniors’ living environments.

After connecting with Migette Kaup, professor and director of K-State’s interior design program and gerontology faculty member with the Center on Aging, all in the College of Health and Human Sciences, Ellis added a minor in gerontology to complement her newfound interests.

“Holly and I got the opportunity to spend a whole semester really exploring her interests and the way in which she was considering the role of the built environment, as well as operational issues that happen in senior care,” Kaup said.

From a young age, Holly Ellis has known the profound effects that physical spaces have on assisted living residents’ health and quality of life. This realization inspired her to pursue research to improve seniors’ living environments.

Building on this foundation, Ellis embarked on her interdisciplinary research, identifying and analyzing various approaches to integrating amenity programs — activities that seniors can engage in to maintain their mental and physical health — into residences.

For instance, some residences may feature large multipurpose rooms for activities, while others designate specific spaces like a library or game room for these activities.

“It’s wildly more important to residents’ social and mental health than I thought to have these specifically designated spaces as opposed to big, empty rooms that you go to every once in a while,” Ellis said.

As part of an internship program, Ellis worked with a client to design life-enriching senior residences. She applied her research when proposing design considerations and standards to the developer.

It’s the kind of experience, Ellis said, that will help her become a better architect and improve the lives of seniors by reinventing norms in the realm of senior living.

“By having this interdisciplinary component early in my career, it gives me the opportunity to really focus in on what I want to do post-grad, and that brings a lot more meaning to my architecture curriculum,” Ellis said.