How to Design for Aging in Place

Often when I have a conversation with other designers regarding design for aging, they talk about parents or grandparents who found that neither they nor their homes were prepared for changes that occurred with age. Yet, many of these changes are predictable, and we should, as designers, be able to incorporate concepts into our designs that accommodate these changes.

Ten years ago, my incredible Irish grandmother died at age 99, and her living situation in the last years of her life propelled me to pay closer attention to design as it pertains to aging. Although basically healthy and alert at age 95, her strength and hearing had diminished to a point that she could no longer safely live in the home she'd known since before I was born. This began my commitment to creating environments that would enable older adults to live comfortably in their homes for the duration of their lives.'

Likewise, personal experiences prompted NY-based interior designer Rosemary Bakker to focus her efforts on these same considerations. In a February 16 New York Times article, Bakker relates that when her mother returned home from hip surgery, she was faced with trying to maneuver a walker through narrow doorways, over area carpets and raised thresholds, and into a kitchen where she couldn't bend to get food out of the refrigerator or reach pots and pans.

Additionally, there was no bathroom on the first floor.'

As the article said, "Suddenly, the house that had suited her for 42 years was a time bomb waiting to go off." Out of this experience came Rosemary's book, Elderdesign, a resource for designing and furnishing homes for later years.'

As kitchen and bath designers, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to design flexibility, access and support into each project we approach. For the first time in history, there are more people over age 65 than under age 25, and many of the homes we live and work in were not designed for this new longevity.'

AARP surveys show that more than 80% of the people over age 60 want to remain in their homes. Accessible kitchens and baths are critical to this desire. To this end, designers must address issues of safe movement throughout the home, as well as efficient yet accessible use of the spaces we design.'

One response, from the Atlanta-based Concrete Change, is the concept of "visitability." To be "visitable," the organization says, a home must have at least one entry that is accessible, wide enough passage through the main floor and at least one main floor bathroom that is designed for use by people of varying abilities. For certain projects in

Atlanta, parts of Texas and California, and the U.K., visitability is required by law.'

As we advance in the aging process, our senses decline, and our flexibility, balance, stamina and reflexes diminish.

These are often compounded by side effects of medications and chronic or injury-related conditions such as arthritis or limited recovery from broken bones. Rather than reacting with denial or depression, we can design to accommodate and support these changes.'

Both the kitchen and bath begin with the entry, where the clearance at the opening, maneuvering space around the door swing and threshold must be examined. Sometimes just reversing a door swing and installing a swing-clear hinge and lever handle to the door will improve the situation. An important break with tradition is to replace the raised threshold at the door with a flush conversion at the entry.'

Once in the kitchen or bath, lighting is a critical element to reduce risk. We all realize that generous amounts of task and ambient light are important. In addition, we must avoid glare and use contrast appropriately to guide the way. If we increase the bath lighting, we must also carefully light the path to the bathroom, perhaps with a motion-activated system, as aging eyes will be blinded by a quick change from darkness to bright light, or the reverse.'

Criteria for selecting flooring should include slip-resistance and some forgiveness for dropped items, or to prevent serious harm in the case of a fall. Pattern or contrast should be gentle, and can be used to help guide the eye. Area rugs should be taped to the floor or, better, eliminated. The point at which flooring materials change should be flush.'

Clear floor space for maneuvering is relatively easy to accomplish in the kitchen, but often difficult in the bathroom.

Pocket doors or reversed door swing help in the bath, as do vanity designs that increase open space below. Particularly in traditional 5'x8' bathrooms, converting from a tub to a roll-in-shower will also help.'

In the kitchen, planning retractable doors to conceal an open knee space will open up the clear space and provide a storage spot that easily converts to a place to sit while working.'

A big consideration for storage is that our height decreases as we age, and for many of us, it becomes less comfortable to bend or climb. Design that provides generous storage between 24" and 45" off the floor eliminates the need to do either.'

This means that the backsplash area in the kitchen becomes valuable for storage, and at least some wall cabinets might be lowered. Rolling storage in either the kitchen or bath can provide flexible clear floor space and storage that moves to the point of use as desired. Open or glass door storage will help to accommodate changes in memory.'

Support in the form of railings or grab bars is essential as we age, yet this is often distasteful to both clients and designers. With the broad offerings of grab bars today, many coordinated to match accessories, the challenge is minimized.'

While this is only the tip of a very big iceberg, it offers food for thought. If my grandmother's home had been designed to support her, she might have stayed comfortably at home. If Rosemary's mother's home had been originally designed to be supportive, her trauma might have been reduced. A 45-year-old couple and their teenage children might not seem to need "aging in place" design, but their parents or friends might. If we can design beautifully and incorporate solutions respectful of our elders, why wouldn't we?'

Universal design and access don't have to be the only focus of our efforts. Rather, we can make them an integral part of every project we design.