“All Hands Are Not Made The Same – Considerations For Aging In Place Design”

Hands come in many sizes and abilities and need to be factored into aging in place solutions through universal design treatments

Mobility encompasses so much more than just walking or stepping – or even getting around from place-to-place. While this is what may come to mind when we think of mobility, the act of maneuvering in a space or moving around is only part of the mobility picture.

Since people come in a range of physical sizes, ages, and abilities, mobility is going to be quite different for many of us. Some people are going to have little issue in using their joints, while others are going to find it more challenging – maybe not every joint in their body but some of the most used ones like fingers, shoulders, elbows, and knees.

For this discussion, let’s focus on a key part of mobility that involves the use of the hands. Our hands, including our fingers and thumbs, extend to touch objects (to feel or experience them), push on doors or furniture that we want to move, grasp handles to open the doors or drawers they are attached to, pick up objects and then hold onto them, move objects from one place to another by holding onto or grasping them – or lifting them – while we are repositioning them, open objects (windows, doors, bottles, jars, and cans), twist handles on faucets or lids on bottles to open or access them, and perform other acts of convenience for us.

In an ideal world with full mobility, much of what we need to evaluate and design for concerning the use of our hands and fingers would not be necessary. However, we know that people have a range of experiences. The same goes for reach and range of motion concerns for our arms (that which our hands are attached to).

Going through a home, we can identify many things which the average person uses with little difficulty but ones that a person with joint issues, hand or arm strength issues, or limited range of motion or flexion abilities will find inhibits their ability to use their home well or one that they might be visiting.

This is why a couple of features in a home that have become commonplace in recent years are advantageous. As such, they are universal design features and are used in new construction as well as renovations and simple home improvements. Not seeing them calls more attention to them than when we find them present. They are truly universal design features.

We’re talking about lever-style door handles – on entry doors and interior ones – and rocker or Decora-style light switches. The round or glass fluted door knobs require much more physical ability and effort to use than the lever handle that can be used with the flat of the hand, the back or edge of the hand, the fist, the wrist, the elbow, or even something we are holding that can be used to depress the handle enough to disengage the bolt. The lever handles are so commonly used that their absence would be noticeable than their presence.

The same holds true for the rocker light switch that can be turned on or off in so many ways other than touching or gripping it with a finger. In fact, it needs no gripping at all and only a light contact to activate it. It can be turned on or off in similar ways as the lever handle can be used. We can even use our upper arm or shoulder to turn it off or on.

Another feature that is commonly used is the single-lever kitchen faucet. This is practical as well as easy to use. It can be activated by pulling or pushing a lever rather than grabbing it, rotating it, or turning or twisting it the way that many dual faucet handles require. There are faucets that operate by a little touch along the spout or even just a motion in front of a sensor to turn the water on or off. This accommodates even the weakest grip or hand difficulty.

Reach is another factor in homes that presents issues for many people –those who are short, those using wheelchairs, or those with limited range of motion in their shoulders or elbows. Consider how the height of a typical upper cabinet (54” above the floor or 18” above the 36” countertop) and the second or third shelf inside it may be difficult for such people to reach easily or at all. Range hoods mounted at a typical height of 6’ (72”) above the floor present similar limitations for people trying to operate the fan or lights. A surface mounted (on the front of the cabinet) switch or a remote-controlled model are much more advantageous and usable by everyone.

Paying attention to how people reach, touch, hold, grasp, operate, and manually use various features and controls in the home will help us change those designs(largely through universal design) to accommodate more people even when there are limitations present that affect how well people can access and use them.

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