Recent data gathered by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) indicates that consumers are becoming increasingly aware of aging-in-place options for their housing needs. Whether remodeling or building new, consumers are planning ahead and opting to remodel or design their homes so as to make them more comfortable as they age and allow for continued independence. There does seem to be, however, a bit of confusion over some of the terminology used in regards to designing changes for aging in place. In recent articles I’ve seen the terms aging in place modifications and universal design used interchangeably. There are important differences between the two.
Aging in place modifications refer to altering an existing home so as to make it more comfortable, safe and accessible as we age. It’s most often done reactively to accommodate some physical disability that has arisen. Stairs, narrow doorways, low toilets, inadequate lighting, and deep sided bathtubs all become safety hazards when you are physically challenged. Not surprisingly then, the types of modification most frequently requested include:
Add grab bars 78%
Install higher toilets 71%
Change a tub or existing shower to a curb-less shower 60%
Widen doorways 57%
Build ramps or removing thresholds 45%
Enhance lighting or adding task lighting 45%
Universal Design, on the other hand, is not about adding grab bars and ramps so that we can continue to care for ourselves and remain at home once we’re disabled. It’s much more proactive and forward thinking that that. Many existing homes include features that at best are inconvenient: thermostats placed at a height that can only be reached when standing, outlets set low on the walls making it necessary to bend to reach them, narrow bedroom and bath doors, microwaves that are unreachable when seated, entrances requiring steps for access, cupboard shelves that can’t be reached without step stools, toilets that become too low for aching joints. These are features that that we never think about until we develop some physical disability – either temporary or permanent – at which point we are faced with a dilemma. And because we are often forced to adapt our homes quickly as a result of an injury, we wind up relying on equipment as a quick fix rather than spending the time planning quality renovations that will maintain the beauty of our home environment and last a lifetime.
Universal design refers to how you address your entire home while you’re still healthy, using products that are designed to be intuitive and functional as well as beautiful and adaptable to change, if and when the need arises. When space is designed using the principles of universal design, no one could ever guess your home was designed for aging because it’s not. Universal design does not mean design for seniors. It means design for everyone – young and old, physically challenged or not. Space does not need to be adapted for anyone because it’s suited to everyone. So for example, rather than having to install a ramp for someone needing to manage the steps to a front entrance, what if entrances were built without any steps at all? What if walkways were sloped from the driveway to the front door so ramps were unnecessary? Or, what if we did not install bathtubs as a standard feature in every bathroom? What if the new standard was a well-equipped walk-in shower with built in seats? What about including touch free faucets, cabinets and lights with touch controls, refrigerators with shallow shelves, temperature read out controls for faucets so as to prevent scalding, varying height counters, wireless thermostat controls, microwaves that fit into drawers, and slip resistant flooring? The beauty is that, while these features and products all fit into the principles of universal design and are of benefit to everyone, they also anticipate a time when climbing over a tub wall, reaching a shelf, or walking up stairs becomes too difficult.
The difference between aging-in-place modifications and universal design is significant and can impact your home environment drastically. Smart Boomers will grab on to the principles of universal design to create beautiful homes for their lifetimes.