Design for Aging - How Not to Do It

by Patricia A. Rowen, ASID, CAPS, member of the ASID Aging-In-Place Council

My parents recently moved into what would be called a “premium” assisted care retirement facility in southern California. Naturally I was anxious to see their new home, so the trip from Michigan to California went to the top of my to-do list. Telephone conversations touted a facility that would provide them with a beautiful and safe living environment. I learned this complex had originally been built as an apartment building and had been converted to a retirement community.

When I arrived, the grounds and maintenance team were very busy improving the gardens and patios surrounding the facility.The lobby and dining room were beautiful, much like the amenities you would find in a fine hotel. The typical resident was between the ages of 70 and 80, though some were older. They are required to be able to walk to and from the dining room, although some of the residents need the assistance of a walker, cane or motorized wheel chair. It is important to note that if residents become unable to walk to and from meals on their own, their need for care has increased and they would then be required to move to another part of the facility. This would also increase the cost of the resident’s apartment and would, in some cases, separate a couple who had been together for decades.

My parent’s apartment has a nice open floor plan with a small kitchen and stackable laundry, and they each have their own bedroom and bathroom. It was the bathroom that prompted the thought, Aging in Style--Not!, as in “not on your life.” Did you know the leading cause of injury or hospitalization among the elderly is falling? To my amazement, the bathrooms in this fine facility—the room in which most falls occur—had not been properly prepared for elderly occupants. Installed grab bars were not in the proper locations, nor were they the proper size. Further, the bars were not attached to a structural component that would adequately handle the stress if needed. One bathroom had a handheld shower with a seat and a comfort height toilet. Neither bathroom had a tall vanity, which meant a lot of stooping for this 85+ year-old couple. The second bathroom had a bathtub, a low toilet, and a low vanity. The low toilet required a toilet extender to be put in place when necessary. When not in use, the extender created an unsafe obstacle in the small bathroom. Both the toilet and the tub were difficult for my father to navigate.

Requests to management to educate them and seek viable solutions fell on deaf ears. One might ask, How could a facility like this so clearly miss the point? Once again I was reminded of the critical need to educate the public, as we do in ASID. Many of the finest care facilities need our help; many of our friends and family need our help. It is not just our business. It is our calling, and we can help.