How to Design for Aging in Place

by WOHe

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

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

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

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

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.

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