Aging in place design considerations and treatments, as opposed to other types of designs for general access such as universal design and visitable design, focuses on addressing individual needs on a case-by-case basis. No two dwellings are going to be approached the same. and no two households are going to have the same needs. There can be similarities that we see, but they are differences as well.
Even when people’s needs are great, their budgets may not be so robust. Then, we must create the most effective solutions that we can and address the most important issues first – always focusing on safety. We must be creative. Sometimes there are supplemental funding sources we can identify or ones the client hadn’t thought of previously.
Nevertheless, just as no two individuals are the same with their outlook on life, age, background, personal preferences, lifestyles, likes, dislikes, ages, physical characteristics, and abilities, those whose activities are limited by various physical considerations vary from one-to-another also.
Interestingly, installing ramps has been the number two home improvement activity for seniors to help them age in place in recent years, behind installing grab bars, with some two-thirds of all such aging in place renovation projects involving ramping of some type. We don’t know if there was already a need that had been identified or if this was a proactive move to be ready in the future should it be necessary, to increase visitability, or because people wanted to do something to make their homes more accessible and felt this was a good place to begin. It could be any of those.
Ramps are one of those interesting devices that people seem to have a general idea of what they are and what they should look like but vary so much in their actual design and application by the specifics of where they are located and what they need to accommodate – the terrain, the climate, the typical users, the types of devices generally used (canes, walkers, crutches, manual wheelchairs, power chairs, or scooters), and architectural considerations.
For instance, ramps can be designed as temporary, short-term devices with much less attention to their appearance and impact on where they are located in relation to an entrance into the home (front door, side door, through the garage, or back door), or they can be created as more of an improvement to the home with much more consideration of where they are located in relation to the entrance, how far they protrude into the yard, their basic design, their size, shape, and ultimately, their look. We can go for a strict functional design and appearance, or we can create more or a universal design that tends to blend into its surroundings to the point that it is not noticeable except as an attractive inclined pathway to the entrance.
It’s not just installing ramps that we do to account or respond to human differences in performance. Many people walk unaided and do not depend on any type of assistance. However, this does not mean that they have no needs in terms of accessibility. They need a walkway that is smooth, level (although an incline is not the same as level or flat, addressing only the quality of the surface here), and unencumbered by any interference such as debris on the surface or plant material growing onto or over it that might interfere with clear use of the space. They need to reach the entrance to the home without any challenges. No specific needs does not mean that we ignore these individuals and let they do the best they can to remain safe as they approach the entrance. It means that we look out for them in a design way the same as we do for anyone else – with or without mobility or sensory needs.
As for sensory needs, this frequently gets no design attention or emphasis. Vision issues that distort or impair how we see and experience the world around us can be as challenging or ever more so than physical impairments. Safety can be risk without the ability to see our surroundings clearly, and vision is responsible for much of our balance as well. By allowing interior spaces to be quite busy or cluttered with furnishings or patterns, having walkways that are hard to discern or navigate clearly, and allowing surfaces to remain that may not be as noticeable from their surroundings due to ineffective color contrasts complicate the ability of an occupant or visitor of a home to be safe in it, use it well and comfortably, and can compromise their well-being.
Aging in place design encompasses so many aspects of the human condition, and we may need the help of other professionals to understand and address the various human performance issues that keep people safe in their homes.