Many people are discussing designing their homes or those of their clients for aging in place – homes currently occupied by them on a going-forward basis, homes they are thinking about acquiring or ones they are considering in the marketplace, new construction offerings by builders in their area, a custom designed and built home done just for them, or those of a client from any of these descriptions. This concept needs clarification.
We can’t technically design or even totally modify a home for someone’s aging in place needs as most people think of it needs because there is no way we can know what those requirements might be a year, three years, or eight years from now. The best we can do is appeal to someone’s current abilities or to use a universal design approach to accommodate the average abilities that someone will have and experience over time – especially with respect to ability, sensory perception, and cognition through intuition and a general understanding of the world around them.
We aren’t really designing or renovating someone’s home for their aging in place concerns as a current activity we are doing today that will suffice for them at some future date. The best we can do is to meet the need of someone today and to create a design which addresses those needs and limitations.
We call it aging in place design when it really is a design treatment or strategy that is meeting or addressing the current and expected needs and lifestyle requirements of someone over the next few years. However, life happens, and to the extent that universal design treatments we have included, those as yet unknown needs may well be addressed, but not intentionally. It would be the result of a comprehensive program of universal design appealing to the broadest needs and abilities of individuals. Without someone experiencing a severe need, their change in ability could be accommodated through a universal design solution done in advance.
With the utilization of universal design and visitability approaches to creating accessible environments, our emphasis can be on providing access points, passageways, appliances, doors, fixtures, switches, controls, flooring, lighting, surfaces, and other aspects of the home that are as barrier-free as possible to help anyone experiencing normal aging, progressive, or traumatic change conditions in their lifestyle and abilities.
While we can’t create aging in place solutions in advance for the simple reason that we cannot know what someone will need over time. We can’t know anything that might happen in the future. The best that we can do is make a reasonable determination, based on the evidence we have available and trends, as to what conditions we might witness and the solutions or treatments we will need to apply.
Thus, creating aging in place solutions means evaluating the current needs, abilities, and requirements of someone along with the physical parameters of their living space and determining what we can do to help them have a safer, more comfortable living experience. This is done in the present tense. We can’t be future-based except in providing universal design or visitability concepts that will apply to the general population regardless of any specific conditions they might be experiencing.
If we truly are concerned about how people can live in their space well over time, and we are less concerned about accommodating any specific needs they might have, we should approach our renovations or design from an accessibility standpoint. By creating a living space that provides the greatest amount of accessibility, we will have enabled aging in place to a great extent.
Accessibility takes on many forms, but by addressing it, we will have created aging in place solutions for many people without specifically looking at their needs. Primarily, we are concerned with how well and how freely someone can navigate their home – hallways, doorways, and individual rooms. We want to make sure they can reach light switches, faucets, and other controls. They must be able to reach and control drawers, cabinet and closet doors, furnishings within their home, kitchen appliances, and bathroom fixtures.
By focusing on how well and how easily someone can navigate and use their living space – including entering and exiting it – we will have been concentrating on accessibility and, to a large extent, focused on their ability to age in place at the same time. Aging in place may necessitate a focus on very specific, individual issues and needs, but when we can accommodate the wider audience, many aging in place needs and requirements will have been addressed in the process.
This is why an emphasis on designing for accessibility may be more advantageous or prudent than relying on more specific, one-at-a-time aging in place renovations to accommodate the specific needs of an individual.