While similar in outcomes, each design strategy is separate and distinct. It approaches the client in two very different ways.
Essentially, aging in place is offering a specific treatment plan for a given need. Universal design is offering a wider appeal solution or treatment that accommodate the specific need but is not limited to serving just that person.
When we are invited into someone’s home to address a specific issue or need they have, we can treat it with aging in place concepts – adding a grab or safety bar or more than one (also called assists, safety assists, or assist bars), task lighting, better flooring, an accessible bathroom sink or shower, more usable cabinets, or dozens of other solutions that might address their specific needs.
We also can take a step back and look at a bigger, wider picture and determine how addressing those needs with a universal design approach will serve their immediate concerns now but also provide for others in the household and visiting guests, neighbors, and relatives.
That is the aim of universal design – to serve the needs of the general population without regard to specific mobility, sensory, or cognitive limitations or restrictions they may have.
Often, a universal design approach can be used to solve or address someone’s needs that they have in terms of accessibility, reach, range of motion, balance, vision, hearing, or other physical conditions that might be affected by the general layout, room features, furnishings, or safety concerns in the home. Sometimes it will mean creating a specific application just for what the person is facing, but a universal design focus might be appropriate.
Generally, a universal design treatment for an area of the home – entry, kitchen, bath, hallway, patio, family room, bedrooms, or other areas – will mean that anyone coming into the home (residents and visitors alike) can find reasonable access to everything in those spaces. Additionally, the features will be easy to use and look like they are supposed to be included in the design as opposed to having the look of appealing to a specific need that someone might have.
When the design looks as if it has been created for one or more users in the home and not for people not residing there, this likely is an aging in place focus. While universal design can accommodate aging issues, specific aging in place treatments (assist bars in additional places or locations, ramps, lifts, countertop heights, cabinet locations, bath fixtures, and other such items) are created for one or more of the residents in the home to enable them to enjoy their space more or have better access to and within it.
A design that offers functional use of the home and is created more for the specific requirements of the residents of that living environment, done on a case-by-case and needs-by-needs basis, is going to have an aging in place emphasis. It might appeal to someone with vision or hearing impairment or mobility challenges in a way that is just for that person or other members of that household.
Conversely, a universal design approach is not focused so much on appealing to specific needs but in providing an environment where people living in the home or those coming into it can feel comfortable regardless of any challenges they may be facing. Seating, lighting, flooring, doorways, hallways, space in the kitchen, access to the bathroom and shower facilities, and the other areas of the home are done in such a way that they allow anyone the ability to use them and are not created just for the use of a specific person.