“Let’s Be Careful Of Qualitative Terms For Aging In Place Designs”

Rather than applying generalizations or opinions about whether something is spacious enough or provides sufficient access, we should use actual measurements and other well-defined criteria

All of us are interested in remaining safe and comfortable in our own homes and in helping our family, neighbors, friends, and clients do the same. However, there are so many qualitative terms used in safety and design guidelines for effective aging in place concerns that it makes it difficult to comply of approach each home in a prudent way – especially for the consumer.

Terms like “adequate,” “sufficient,” and “enough” may convey what we are looking for in a design but may mean so many different things to each observer. After all, who is doing the measurement or assessment. A person who is six-foot-tall might say that something is located at an appropriate height while a person much shorter could have issues reaching it. That same taller person might find maneuvering space cramped in a tight area while a smaller person would have fewer issues or none at all. Therefore, we must avoid qualitative terms and actually spell out what we mean.

Instead of saying that there is sufficient room to enter the bathroom, how about we say that the bathroom doorway is wide enough to enter (walking, with a walker, or using a wheelchair, as we choose to specify) with a few inches of clearance on either side? Rather than indicate that there is sufficient space in front of the bathroom sink or toilet, how about we say that there is room for a person to turn a complete circle with their arms outstretched (or to the extent possible for limited reach or mobility)?

Rather than expressing a passageway as wide enough, let’s say what we mean – that the doorway, hallway, or pathway between the furniture is wide enough to pass without contacting anything on either side or being afraid of falling into an adjacent item? This eliminates the subjective assessment of what wide enough means – wide enough for one person may not be for another.

Similarly, when we say that the flooring surface is safe to walk on or that there is enough or a sufficient amount of lighting in a room or walkway, this means that the evaluator is making the determination – there is no objective measurement of what is meant.

Is the flooring safe to walk on? Is it prone to being slippery or is there worn or rippled carpeting? Are there loose rugs that that can bunch up or slide? These can be measured, but safety as a collective term is much harder to assess. It is going to depend on the individual and their ability although there are generally unsafe practices we want to avoid.

For lighting, let’s just say whether there is enough lighting in the room to perform the desired tasks – reading, watching TV, doing a crossword puzzle, sewing, preparing meals, grooming, washing the dog, or general housekeeping – without any glare, shadows, darkened areas, or hot spots from lights not well diffused?

When we say that light switches and controls are easy to use, who is making the determination? They might be easy for us, but how about the client or someone with even less ability such as a visitor or guest?

When we assess whether items can be reached, controlled, or operated, is that our opinion or do we observe the client doing this?

As to enough space around a doorway, appliance, bath fixture, cabinet, or piece or furniture, how are we determining what that means? This is such a subjective assessment that may not measure up in many cases.

Therefore, rather than applying very subjective terms in doing our evaluation or checklist or performing an assessment – terms such as sufficient, enough, easy, roomy, wide, simple, or similar terms or expressions that may have a distinct meaning to us but cannot translate to our clients or their living space – we need to have a set of guideline we can apply. These can be measurements, such as determining if the doorway provides three-feet of clearance, or they can be descriptive, such a lever-style door handle or a bar-type drawer pull of at least four inches in length. What they cannot be is just our opinion of whether something is easy to use, simple to understand, or provides enough room to access and use it well.

We can’t spend the day with our clients and we can’t be there when visitors or guests are using their home, so we cannot in short order make such qualitative assessments and determinations as to whether something is appropriate for safety, access, comfort, or convenience.

Making these determinations take much more concrete and absolute terms that we can apply and not the subjective, qualitative ones that might mean something to us and have a totally different meaning different to another professional or the client. Time of day and the client’s general mood can also affect how they use a space. We need real criteria to use and apply.

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