Two types of design that are very effective for helping people age in place are universal design and adaptable design. What’s interesting about these two concepts is that in many cases the end result looks exactly the same. What varies is the intent or purpose and the timing.
Universal design is proactive. It begins before there is a specific need to accommodate people of various abilities, heights, ages, and other physical factors. Those people may already live in the home, or it may be a broader approach to accommodate people who might be visiting the home for any number of reasons.
The central premise of universal design is that essentially everyone can use a home, its interior space, and all of the components contained within it. All of the controls, furnishings, passageways, shelving, hardware, bath fixtures, kitchen appliances, eating and serving areas, windows, flooring, closets, cabinets and drawers, and the remaining features in a home should be accessible – at least in part – to everyone regardless of their ability, strength, or stature.
There could part of the design that is difficult for some people to use, such as higher shelving, but there should be plenty of other options available to everyone – smaller people, people seated or using a wheelchair, people with limited reach or limitations in the use of their hands, or those with limited muscle strength in the arms, shoulders, back, or legs.
This is the great part of using universal design. It takes the guesswork out of planning for who might be using the space because it really doesn’t matter. Nearly everyone will be comfortable in the space and able to function well. With few exceptions, people living in the home, as well as anyone coming into the home for a single or occasional visit, will find it usable for them.
As for adaptable design, the casual observer likely could not draw a distinction between what was done or why without a little background. Take for instance someone who no longer can stand unaided at the sink to wash their hands, get a glass of water, wash the dishes, prepare food, or clean up after a meal. They must rely on support from their walker or other types of a device like a cane or crutches. They might need to sit on a bench, or they might be using a wheelchair.
In this instance, the traditional sink base cabinet would provide a barrier for them because they could not get close enough to the sink to use and access it well. Having slide-under space that could be used by anyone at any time from a seated or close-proximity position would be a solution that could be done to adapt the space for those people who require it now. However, it also could be done now, with no immediate need, to have it available for anyone (occupants or visitors) who might like to use it this way.
A similar approach would be to remove or modify the toe kick and cabinet floor and then install a track for the cabinet doors to open and retract along – making the front of the cabinet totally accessible with no doors open into the floor space. Again, this can be either an adaptable or universal design solution, depending on when it is done and whether there is an immediate need for it.
There are many other examples of how something that is done to adapt a space to satisfy current or changing needs – on an as-needed basis – could be complete in advance as a universal design treatment. Both types of design provide greater access, more functionality, comfort, convenience, and safety. Consider universal designs that could be done now to accommodate developing changes before they are even necessary.