While we hear a lot of discussion about creating aging in place designs as if there is a type of approach that will work for everyone – a type of “cookie-cutter” or generic approach. However, designing for aging in place is a complex matter. Part of this idea – of designing for someone’s potentially changing needs in advance and seeing aging concerns as a relatively universal condition – is a correct concept, and part of it is overstated because aging in place is an individual situation that likely changes over time and is different for each individual.
Each person has their own requirements, and a universal or comprehensive fix, as it were, is not practical or possible for addressing specific conditions. What one person requires may not make any sense for other individuals or may have a different priority in the overall approach. Even when two or more people have grown up in the same home with the same parents and experienced the same events inside that home, their physical conditions, likes, dislikes, and needs may be quite different and varied.
Siblings or even twins who lived in the same home growing up were exposed to the same music, food, discussions, and other common aspects shared within the home. The personalities of their parents were shared experiences as well. Yet, as adults, they may differ dramatically in their worldview and their likes and dislikes. Some may favor certain types of foods and flavors while others do not. One may love red as a color while the other favors yellow or something else. They have different tastes in cars, art, music, and entertainment. They watch different TV shows and read different articles and books.
Even two neighbors who have purchased identical homes, that were built exactly the same time by the same builder and come with the same floor plan, can be quite different because of the way that additional features and decorator options were added. Even if those homes were delivered exactly the same so that it would be difficult to distinguish one from the other by initial appearances, after they are occupied and each owner has placed their personality in the home with their furnishings, their paint colors, their dishes, artwork, and other accessories, each home takes on its own identity.
As similar (even identical) as those homes and interiors were initially, they may provide entirely different living environments for their occupants now and affect how the residents of those homes age and function within those spaces. Because of the differences in the way those homes differ in how they accommodate the needs of their owners – even though they began as essentially the same homes – we will have different aging in place strategies to offer in order to appeal to the needs of those in each home.
The closest we can get to a standardized approach to meeting the changing physical needs is to employ universal design and visitability approaches to level the playing field by creating a type of accessibility that anyone can use. In this sense, we can design for aging in place needs in general but not for the specific individuals who occupy those homes.
This is why creating aging in place designs is user-specific. If a person could go to a retail store or shop online for a treatment that they could purchase and put into their home that would work today as well as five years from now, we wouldn’t be the aging in place specialists that we are. Just a few years from now, someone’s needs may be dramatically different than they are today. All it takes, in addition to how the normal aging process is affecting our vision and hearing, is for a progressive or traumatic event to occur.
We have no way of knowing when such an event might happen or if it will happen, but clearly this changes the rules of how someone occupies, maintains, and lives in their home. Thus, we really can’t create aging in place designs in advance of someone’s specific needs.
We can respond to someone’s needs and requirements, and we can evaluate how their lifestyle might be changing from what it has been or how it is today. We can make suggestions to accommodate that current or perceived lifestyle, but the key to creating effective aging in place design solutions is to evaluate the current condition and needs of an individual and then to make suggestions to maintain their standard of living (to keep it from declining) or to enhance it.
As much as it might be desirable to advertise that we can create a type of generic aging in place design, it’s all dependent on what each individual requires. It’s not unlike purchasing a new outfit for someone without knowing whether they would like it or want to wear it – or taking them to dinner and ordering ahead for the meal to be ready when they arrived. Just as neither of those actions would be welcome because we just can’t know how well our selections would be received, we run the risk of interjecting our own opinions, insights, and experiences into the mix, trying to anticipate what someone’s needs, desires, or abilities will be at some future date. This makes no sense either.