Aging in place focuses on individual needs
Aging in place as a strategy and universal design as a concept are closely related but very different at the same time. Their purposes and areas of focus are different.
Aging in place is a design strategy that concentrates on making a dwelling – specific to the individual or individuals in that living space – safe, comfortable, accessible, and enjoyable so that they can live independently in that home for the rest of their lives (unless a serious medical issue forces relocation to a hospital, rehab center, or memory care facility).
Design choices and modifications that are selected are specific to the individuals and their living space. They don’t have to have widespread appeal. They just need to facilitate a safe and accessible lifestyle for the occupants of that particular home.
Universal design encompasses a larger audience
While making aging in place design choices and recommendations focus on the individuals living in the home, a more proactive approach might have made some of these changes unnecessary. Adding universal design elements at any time in the life cycle of a home can mean that people with limited abilities can still use a given space quite well.
That’s really the essence of universal design – creating a level of usability that applies to almost everyone in a way that is not specific to any one individual’s needs. As people age and have mobility or sensory issues that come with aging, universal design can accommodate these changes because of its nature. However, someone may have a need that is specific to them that universal design would not incorporate. That’s where a specific aging in place solution would need to be created.
Timing can have a lot to do with it
When it comes to deciding on whether something is an aging in place modification or a universal design element, the timing of when it is done, and the approach, can have a lot to do with which one is used.
When a client has a specific need that requires an immediate response, this likely would be an aging in place solution – something created just for them to facilitate their ability to function well in their space. However, if we can fashion it in such a way that it does not have the appearance of just being for them at this particular time but can serve them (and others in the home) over time in a functional, serviceable, and attractive way, then a universal design choice would the route to go.
Both designs can be similar, but the universal design strategy would have the largest appeal and the least noticeable impact on the home.
Universal design is less time-sensitive
Some people choose to make modifications to their homes to accommodate the specific needs of one of their members (a grab bar, easy access shower, walk-in tub, or adjustable appliances or counters, for instance). Others may elect to move from the home they are in rather than trying to modify their current space and opt for a different floor plan that they believe can accommodate them long-term (one-level, easier entry and navigation, more storage, newer design, more technology features, smaller and more compact, or other advantageous features).
While this is technically aging in place because this occurs wherever someone is residing, it’s beyond the spirit of aging in place which is to modify or otherwise address issues in the current home so that moving from it is unnecessary and the occupants can maintain safe and viable lifestyles in their present homes for the rest of their days.
Universal design is a type of design strategy or concept that attempts to make features in the home usable by and accessible to anyone living in the home (regardless of age, size, physical strength, mobility, sensory capacity, cognition, or other considerations).
Similar but different
Both aging in place solutions and universal design considerations allow a person to live in their home well. In that they are similar. They depart in that aging in place is done is created withing a living space (all of it or just certain rooms or areas) after we determine specifically what someone needs to assist them in using their home well, while universal design creates safe usage and access regardless of a person’s abilities. It is less dependent on the specific individual and relies more on people in general – even those who largely don’t live in the home.