Is Design for Aging Right for You?

By Louis Tenenbaum, CAASH, CAPS and member of the ASID Aging in Place Council

What does it take to work with clients who are preparing to “age in place”?

Aging in place projects are a combination of the person, their feelings, health, prognosis and the environment in which they live. When you feel you have all that under control, remember to overlay budget and family issues. Assisting people with the full range of aging in place decisions is multi- or trans-disciplinary activity. It is never only about design. It is always also about equipment, services, caregiving, change and the emotions of aging. If you think this combination of factors already sounds like a train wreck that you want no part of, stop now. If you think it sounds like an ….opportunity… to use the best of your compassion and patience with clients and colleagues, keep reading.

What should you do to prepare?

Learn the language and work pattern of the folks with whom you must work. Since there is no existing discipline that prepares someone for this hodgepodge of issues, no one has a tool bag with all the skills to solve all the problems. The required mix of skills cannot be gained through education alone. Prior work experience can be valuable training. Many in this field started in nursing and went into design. Some started in construction and switched to occupational therapy. There is no one, right path.

Here are some questions you might ask yourself if you are considering this niche:

  • Do you know enough about construction to imagine moving a bearing wall or relocating a heating duct? Can you picture a ramp running into a sloping yard?
  • Can you picture the way a person moves in space and even motion variations for people with different physical characteristics?
  • Are you able to enjoy the company—exchange twinkles so to speak—with folks from another generation?
  • Did you enjoy your grandparents’ company? How about their friends?
  • Have you delivered Meals on Wheels because it was fun meeting folks where you dropped off the food?
  • Have you ever worked in a nursing home because you found it pleasant and uplifting?
  • Do you like helping folks solve a problem they only partially acknowledge?
  • Do you have patience to listen to someone who does not get straight to the point? Or has trouble communicating?
  • Can you hold off blurting out a great solution to a problem until the rest of your group has their light bulb go off too?
  • Do you enjoy the time it takes to get a small group all on the same page even when they don’t share the same agenda?
  • Can you bear to proceed along a path you don’t think is best?
  • Are you comfortable knowing the solution to a problem lies outside your experience, so you must seek and ask help from others?
  • Do you like to collaborate with folks who know less or different things than you?

Who enters this (barely recognized) specialty?

Right now everyone is welcome to take the plunge. No one training or another qualifies a person. Many parties are on the frontier exploring this territory: rehab engineers, occupational therapists, contractors, designers, case managers and social workers think they have keys to the task and the market. Yet none of these groups currently trains in all the areas necessary to do the job. There is always going to be experiential training once you commit to the job. As the questions above and the list below reveal, doing this kind of work is as much about temperament as it is about skills. Ultimately, it comes down to who you are as a person.  Do you see yourself as someone with all or most of the following characteristics?

  • compassionate/caring
  • actively listens
  • has a respect for individuals
  • respects the dignity of all individuals
  • has an interest, beyond money and a job, in this area of work
  • has some understanding about construction structures
  • understands construction time flow, relating to pricing and permitting, plans, etc.
  • able to establish mutual respect and communication with construction people
  • able to establish mutual respect and communication with healthcare, social workers
  • able to establish communication with people, some of whom do not “get” your job, communicate slowly, are facing depression, worry, an uncertain and/or depressing future
  • able to maintain a dialogue with many parties who are not on the same page
  • comprehends the implications of change in life and ability
  • comprehends the implications of prognosis for individuals and diseases
  • has an appreciation of body mechanics and variation
  • has an appreciation of how small things can be examined to understand the whole
  • is open-minded about solutions (out-of-the-box thinking)
  • has patience to see how things unfold (does not jump to the first or last solution)
  • has an appreciation of the integration of services/caregiving/ability

What factors lead to success?

Interest and passion. No matter what your background, the critical thing required for success in this field is careful attention to the client. The breadth of important information cannot be gained through observation alone. You must learn through a process of listening to the client while you gain their trust. You have to assure the client(s) you have their interests uppermost and that you do not have any answers without their input.

The bottom line?

You “gotta wanna” to do this to bother. Many jump in after learning about the market and the basic good sense of designing for aging in place only to find it is too hard a row to hoe, requires too much patience, or is happening too far in the future to wait out emerging infrastructure. If you jump in now, prepare to be humble. There is a steep learning curve, and the demand is not yet as great as some would have you believe. On the positive side, the work is rewarding, and clients are grateful. You can make a difference in someone’s life that has a more meaningful impact than in some other projects. If you embrace the challenge, the effort is worth it.

Louis Tenenbaum is an independent living specialist.  To find out more about his work, visit or