“Universal Design Choices Are Better Than Absolutes For Aging In Place”

This bright, accessible kitchen contains many desirable features such as wide aisles, easy-to-use pulls, a dropped counter, and open shelving at three different levels

Rules are clean. We can follow them – even when we don’t like them. We obey (or we know what the consequences might be if we don’t) driving the posted speed limit signs. We observe posted rules in hotels, clubs, parks, retail centers, and other public areas. We observe the rules of the road (driving on the correct side of the road, wearing our seat belt, and yielding to others when they have the right-of-way). In most places, texting while driving is prohibited, and many places do not allow the use of a cell phone while driving except in a speaker mode.

Most of us have played basketball, baseball, softball, or soccer (football, if you like), or a similar group activity while growing up. We are familiar with the rules. We expect them to be followed – especially when we feel that our team was aggrieved.

There are so many rules of behavior – written and unwritten – that we observe when we are in public and around other people or in places where we might see or encounter others.

There are many other common observances, that, while not published or rigid rules, are learned or observed behavior. For instance, we generally don’t go outside in the winter without a sufficiently warm outfit – at least a jacket or coat to insulate us from the weather. We wear a raincoat or carry an umbrella when it’s raining. We refrain from grabbing hot objects or touching the burner on a stove when it’s in use. While we like to show others (or demonstrate to ourselves) how strong we are, we know our limits and do not intentionally attempt to lift something way too heavy for our ability.

We observe potential risks with caution. When we approach a home or place of business that seems to have an unfriendly dog guarding the premises, we stay clear. We know what can happen with electrical current if we contact it when we shouldn’t or unprotected, even though we can’t see it.

We are aware of how sharp objects such as knives, broken glass, razors, scissors, and pointed objects can cut or potentially severely injure us, and we don’t need reminders of this each time we are tempted to act carelessly around such items.

We know about laws of gravity and what will happen if we throw something into the air and expect it to remain there or if we jump from a hight surface and expect to control our rate of descent. We know what will likely happen if we are standing or sitting in the way of something falling toward us from above and remaining there until it contacts us. We are aware of the power and mass of a car, truck, bus, or train when we attempt to run in front of it while it is approaching. Similarly, the prohibition against jaywalking may be a nuisance and an inconvenience to have us walk to the intersection, but it may protect us from tripping, stumbling, or risking being struck by a vehicle as we attempt to hurry across the road to the other side without the legal protection of a crosswalk or signaling devices.

So, we look at universal design and how we might want to use it in our homes or those of our clients for creating accessible environments and aiding in aging in place designs. Wouldn’t it be easier and cleaner for all concerned if we just adopted a uniform set of universal design applications and installed them everywhere? A set of rules, if you like.

On the surface, it may seem like a good approach, but there are many considerations, including budget, age and condition of the home, what it might already have in place, and the needs and abilities of the residents or clients.

Whenever possible, we would want to design an aging place improvement created specifically for our client to observe the guidelines of universal design with respect to appearance and how easy it is to use, but a general prescriptive formula irrespective of an individual’s needs or abilities would not be beneficial. Also, it may not be easily achievable based on the constraints of the building or dwelling.

Nevertheless, when we can create an aging in place solution that observes good universal design elements, we will have created a solution that meets the needs of several people and not just the client. It still needs to apply to the individual needs of the client and other members of their household, but we may be able to achieve both – a specific aging in place solution that is usable by most anyone who might come into that home and fits into the space where it is used as it it belongs there.

We just need the flexibility of being able to create the solutions that meet the needs and abilities of our clients without being required to comply with certain guidelines or products because they have been mandated.

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