Universal Design for Seniors
Modern society is mobile. We don’t stay home as a tribe any more to take care of our parents and help raise children. We go away to college and relocate to find jobs. So who takes care of our elders?
These days, most seniors go into retirement villages that cater to the stages of aging, from independent living to total dependence on the medical system.
Baby boomers are the largest generation today. They/we are healthy and active, despite bodies that move a little slower and senses that are not as sharp as 20 years ago. This is not an idle group of people! How can they stay home in an environment that adapts to their changing needs?
Aging at home
It has been shown that seniors prefer to grow old and die at home in familiar surroundings. That’s understandable. Creating a new life in a new place is stressful under the best of circumstances. After a long life of responsibilities, seniors deserve to live stress-free.
When parents become empty nesters, they usually downsize to a home big enough for two (or one!). There is no need to pay a mortgage on and maintain a family-sized home. Let a family do that!
They should choose a home with Universal Design features, whether they build new, buy and remodel, or buy an existing home built with retirement in mind. Universal Design homes accommodate diminished hearing, eyesight and mobility, and they appeal to all ages, abilities and languages.
Universal Design is not obvious. The one-story home does not feel or look like a hospital or public building. Hallways are wide, and each room has space for a wheelchair to maneuver properly, even within a group of people. The home is spacious – fewer obstacles mean better safety.
Levers are used instead of doorknobs for those who can’t grasp well anymore. Electrical outlets are as high as 48” off the floor. There is no need to cross a room when good lighting has multiple switches. There may be a ramp instead of stairs to the front door.
In a kitchen, roll-out shelves in lower cabinets and adjustable shelves in cupboards reduce the need for bending and reaching. Adjustable countertops accommodate cooks in wheelchairs.
To avoid burns and reduce reaching, range controls are on the front of the appliance. Faucets have extended levers or motion sensors like you see in public washrooms now. Floors have innocuous non-skid surfaces.
A bathroom is a dangerous place for someone with mobility issues. A roll-in shower is a must for those in wheelchairs, and the lack of a rim to step over is safer for everyone. An alternative is a walk-in bathtub for those who like to soak. There is no need to step over the wall of a tub, which could cause someone to lose their balance and slip. A hand-held showerhead reduces the need for movement, too.
Sinks can be at a custom height, and faucets have extended lever or motion sensors. Toilets can be raised, and grab bars can be installed on walls and in the shower.
Some things can be installed later as needed, like high toilets, grab bars, and textured doorknobs. It is easier and less expensive to iinclude these features during construction or remodeling, though.
Aging comfortably and enjoyably
To age comfortably and joyfully, I think people need to stay at home instead of being subjected to the rules and regs of a retirement facility. When health and mobility issues need attention, visiting nurses can do regular check-ins. Let’s keep our aging population at home with Universal Design until then!