Beginning at the beginning
As with so many endeavors, we like to look at the beginning phase of something to see what we might do to carry long-term benefits into the process. Aging in place is similar in that people want to know early on what they can do – of what can be done for them – that might be beneficial in the months and years to come. Some people desire to create an aging in place living environment or to identify one in a home they intend to build or purchase.
The desire is correctly placed, but aging in place works differently than this. It is based on identifying and meeting the needs of a specific individual or individuals in a living space. This really cannot be done entirely in advance although there are some effective steps we can take. While we might know some of the requirements of a person moving into a new living situation, those aren’t absolute in this sense that they will not change over time.
This is the essence of aging in place design – identifying and meeting the needs of people and being receptive to how those needs might be changing. Obviously, this really cannot be done in advance of someone occupying a space. We need to see people in their space and make arrangements to accommodate them after they are occupying and using their chosen home.
Planning for the future
Even though aging in place modifications can’t be done in advance in the sense that we may not or cannot know how someone is going to change over time, we can address what we observe in the present. However, that is only part of the aging in place paradigm because we have to be sensitive and responsive to future needs and events. We have to wait until we learn or observe how people are changing in their living space before we can offer suggestions on improving it.
Still, there are some givens such as safety, comfort, convenience, and accessibility. Anyone can expect to find such attributes in their home regardless of the specific features that might be involved or their abilities so we can begin here. Then we can apply an individual’s needs and requirements to what we observe and find in their home.
A safe space is essential, so we will look at identifying passageways, doorways, and objects that work for anyone without interfering with the safe navigation of that space. We’ll want to identify potential challenges in thresholds, the width of the doorway, the weight of any doors, and the relative slipperiness of flooring surfaces throughout the home. How difficult or easy it might be to reach, unlock, and open windows in the home needs to be reviewed and evaluated with potential future limitations for use noted (reach, arm strength, range of motion, and grip required, for instance). Overhead and other installed lighting will be noted. Of course, table lamps and other furnishings will be a function of what the occupant of the home provides.
No crystal ball is required
The whole point of aging in place is that it is fluid. we don’t have to know, nor can we know, in advance how someone is going to evolve in their home environment. Injuries and illnesses happen. Diet and exercise are ways of promoting good health and longevity. Nevertheless, aging in place is an individual endeavor requiring its own specific application.
Therefore, we can plan for the present while being sensitive to how someone’s needs will change over time. Aging in place design considerations are not just done once for all time but require constant review for modifications that might be required to meet the current needs of individuals in their homes.
For instance, we need to make sure that someone is going to continue to navigate their homes well and that they can reach and use cabinet pulls and handles, open doors, adjust controls, turn on switches, access appliances, utilize bath fixtures, air and use their furniture, such as chairs, tables, dressers, and beds.
Since we may not be able to be as responsive as we would like for everyone that we intend to serve – and meet their needs as they are changing – a more prudent approach is to use universal design in creating home environments. This way, we know that even as people’s needs change in time, much of their home, if not all of it, can continue to meet their needs. We don’t need a crystal ball to plan for every eventuality. Universal design is the next best thing.
When we design for people to have the optimum usage of their space, taking into account normal aging issues and limitations that may develop, we will have addressed much of what will allow people to use their space safely. As they have more impactful limitations from diseases or injuries, we will have to provide specific adaptations for them, but universal design treatments should go a long way toward helping them even with their limitations.