Certain designs and approaches seem to make sense for just about anyone. They are attractive, intuitive, easy to use and fit into the rest of the home without calling any special attention to themselves. We call these types of treatments universal design.
At the other end of the design scale is a process called accessible design where we are appealing to the specific and special needs of the client without regard as to how those treatments might be accepted by the marketplace. In fact, our concern is solely with meeting the needs of the client, and we appreciate that the solutions may not translate to general market acceptance. That is not the point. They are to serve the client regardless of how obvious the solutions are or how much the home needs to be modified to do this.
Using a broad lens to look at the design process, we are creating and achieving aging in place solutions by examining what the client needs to improve their general quality of life, safety, or mobility and generally coming up with a solution that leans more toward the universal design end of the scale than the accessible design end.
Creating aging in place solutions cause us to ask ourselves – before recommending anything to our clients – how their lives will be impacted for better or worse by what we could suggest to them. There are many design alternatives available that serve the younger or able-bodied population much more than they apply to elderly clients or those with physical or sensory limitations. We must balance what looks nice, what will serve the needs of the client, what their budget will allow, and how permanent or short-term the solutions might need to be.
Sometimes, the client will have ideas of what they would like to see – ideas they have gleaned from television shows, the internet, or magazines. We might agree with some but dismiss others as not really serving their needs, not being in their best interests, or being beyond their budget.
Much of what is available and labeled as appealing for people to consider when contemplating a home modification is not something we want to recommend to our clients. We have to consider their needs, budget, timing, physical constraints of their home, and other characteristics in formulating a plan. While many products, finishes, and overall looks might be aesthetically pleasing, attractive, and well designed for what they are, we must step back and consider them in terms of their general usefulness for the majority of people and especially those for whom we are designing.
Safety is a huge factor in our design choices. As people age, or as their physical, cognitive, or sensory abilities begin to decline, designs that were appropriate at a younger age may not be something we would recommend now. It doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong or inappropriate about the product or the design, it just means that it is not a good fit for this particular client. Above everything else, aging in place solutions are client-centric. They are based on the needs (budget and other factors) of the client. Their reach, range of motion, balance, stamina, strength, height, physical size, and whether they use any type of mobility assistance all factor into what we would recommend or design for them.
Some products are designed to be used by people with better agility, balance, dexterity, depth perception, and other abilities than what we might find with a specific client. This is especially true in the areas of the home where most accidents occur and where the majority of personal activities happen – the kitchen and the bath. To a lesser extent, the entrance to the dwelling needs to be considered. Looking out for, maintaining, and improving client safety must be atop our priorities.