Getting Started

By Louis Tenanbaum, CAPS, Independent Living Specialist and member of the ASID Aging-in-Place Council

In a recent ASID Aging in Place Council Web survey, many respondents said they want more education about designing for an aging population. Especially, they are looking for help on how to get started working with clients about aging in place and Universal Design. I hope the following paragraphs will shed some light on this area.

First of all, be assured that you already know what to do. Design for an aging population is not a wholly different process. This is just tweaking your experience. It is about repositioning your point of view. Sure the Principles of Universal Design (and interpretation thereof) need to be employed. There are some new and different products and details to learn. But you already do that sort of research for many projects.

Just the facts, ma’am.

The biggest difference from general residential design is increased emphasis on and depth of the client profile. We always ask our clients about their personal preferences and desires. We always find out what about their home they like or hate. We always ask about the improvement they hope this project will have on their lives. Those are still relevant questions, but now we frame them in a more personal way:

  • Are some household activities more difficult now than they were in the past?
  • Do you have health conditions that may impact your ability to use space and design?
  • What else about your health and prognosis should I know to do a good job on this project?

If you think these questions are too personal, think first about aging. It is really popular. Everyone is doing it. This is a trend that cannot become dated.

The facts on aging are pretty clear. It is not an acute illness like the flu or bronchitis. It’s a chronic condition, meaning it will not get better in the short term. We have to live with the impact. Aging is progressive, meaning change will continue and it is downhill from here.

Prognosis is no more than what a reasonable person can expect from dealing with current information. If you have grown to be sore after a day working in the garden, yoga may help, but it will not bring a reversal. Maybe you are stiff and sore more often, take longer to recover from tennis aches, make more trips to the bathroom and sleep less regularly. None of that is so bad. It is the cost of progress we all aspire to, considering the alternative! If you are being treated for other conditions, your doctor should help you know what to expect.


Incorporating Universal Design

Now incorporate this information into your program.  All these things should be accounted for in your home. That is the role or impact of aging on residential design.  What you know and learn about Universal Design will connect the program to the design.

Take flexibility for example. Instead of defining each space for specific use, prepare the space for alternate use and multiple routines. Take something simple, like a built-in seat in the shower. What if one of the clients wants the controls to the left and the other to the right? What if they want to bathe the dog in there? Those alternatives call for a space that is less defined, into which one can stand, lean or put and remove a chair. A built-in shower seat defines how the space is used. An open shower allows the space to be used flexibly. A spacious, less-defined shower allows more maneuvering, alternative uses and varied routines. Two can use the space simultaneously, whether for a shared shower or by a client and caregiver. Flexibility is preparation for the unknown, good-guess prognosis.

There are other ways to look at this issue. Our colleagues in the Occupational Therapy world call it the client/environment fit. Shouldn’t that be the point of all design? What is custom design if about if not the user’s specific needs? The disability rehabilitation community calls it the New Paradigm of Disability in which disability is a function of interaction between the environment and the user rather than a condition of the user alone. Good, functional and easy interaction has always been a mark of good design.

Seize the opportunity!

Designers are well prepared to incorporate these issues in their process. How much different are these solutions than meeting the electrical and humidity requirements of a large wine cellar; the space, sight lines and wiring needed for a home theater; the lighting and protection of furnishings and art; or the need to reduce energy use or VOCs in a “green” design? Design for an aging population may be more significant than some of these innovations and trends, but it is no more difficult. Don’t be intimidated by terminology and labels.  If you are designing for people, then aging is already a part of what you do. Think of it as just another requirement of the program, and then incorporate aging into lots of very good design.