Until recently, most new home designs were focused on the needs of a young, growing family. But in the 1980s, the term “universal design” was coined by Ronald L. Mace, a wheelchair-bound architect who defined it as “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” It’s a principle aimed at making buildings, environments and products accessible to the broadest possible population. Most of the changes made to accommodate older residents who want to age in place in their homes fit this idea of universal design. What’s more, the idea of a home for life isn’t just appealing to older people — it’s a design trend that is just as attractive to young families. That’s because universal design is structured around seven core concepts, including things like flexibility and simplicity, which promote maximum safety and access for everyone — from youth through old age.
Aging in Place Design for Everyone in the House
A home for life is a concept that can appeal to everyone. Features that increase the usability of the home by people of all ages, sizes and abilities enhance the ability of all residents to live independently in the home as long as possible. In universally designed homes shelving, appliances, closets and fixtures are designed to accommodate persons of varying heights, ages and abilities. Doors, doorways and halls are widened to accommodate wheelchairs.
Walls in hallways are equipped with railings to facilitate walking. Bathtubs and toilets have grab bars attached for ease of use.
The Trend Toward Multi-Generational Homes
A key development that has influenced the trend toward universal design is the fact that more homes now have residents of multiple generations. Before the 1950s, it was common for grandparents, parents and children to all reside in the same dwelling. By the early 2000s, the multi-generational household had become a rarity. Since then, however, the numbers have started to rise and now 20% of senior citizens live in a multi-generational home. Another factor in this rising trend is what’s called the “sandwich generation” — people who are caring for an elderly parent while also raising their own families. As the aging baby boomer population is expected to double in size by 2030, it is expected that the shift toward multi-generational living, and designing homes to age in place will continue to rise.
Helping Seniors Maintain Independence
Seniors face various health problems and limited physical ability, and if their current housing is not adequately designed to accommodate their needs, their living experience becomes less enjoyable and, in many instances, quite hazardous. Housing that is not properly designed can actually cause preventable disabilities and unnecessarily force seniors to live at lower levels of functioning and independence.
Basic Home for Life Design Features
There are basic design features in a home for life that are appealing to everyone, such as lighting. A small child and a person in a wheelchair can control lighting through keypads that are mounted low. Lighting is also one of the most immediate lines of defense against burglars, which makes it appealing to anyone who wants to protect their home and family. Push a button on the keypad, and you can make the exterior lights strobe on and off to scare away intruders. Whether buying a new home or retrofitting your existing residence, there are many universal design features to explore:
- Entrances: At least one no-step entrance or entryway ramp.
- Halls: A minimum of 36″ wide hallways, with a full turn radius of five feet in the bathroom, kitchen, bedroom and office
- Doors: Doorways a minimum of 32″ wide (offset door hinges will add up to two inches to width)
- Floors: Smooth, slip-resistant, matte-finish flooring, 1/4″-1/2″ low-pile carpeting, without thresholds when transitioning between rooms
- Bathrooms: First floor bathroom with roll-in shower, a fixed detachable handheld showerhead and folding bench; toilet bowl 17-19″ high, placed a minimum of 18″ from the wall, with easy access to grab bars.
- Sinks: A roll-under wall-hung sink with a centered lever faucet in bathroom and kitchen, with open space underneath
- Grab bars: Professionally installed grab bars in bathrooms and in other areas where extra supports might be needed, such as hallways or spots between rooms where someone might pause.
- Counters: Different counter heights in the kitchen, with D or loop-shaped handle pulls and roll-out shelves
- Lights: Rocker light switches, recessed lighting above cabinets and countertops, lots of ambient lighting throughout and as much natural light as possible
- Reach. A reaching distance of 15″ to 48″ is best for things like light controls, outlets, storage, shelving, telephone jack and Internet connections for comfort, convenience and to guard against falls or other injuries.
The Benefits of Universal Design
By taking into account the largest possible spectrum of abilities and needs, universal design principles enhance efficiency and “shelf life” of a home, as well as cost-effectiveness. These combined assets benefit everyone. When it comes to your home, by investing from the onset in home for life design principles that promote access, you can ensure your comfort and safety over time — no matter how old you are.
Start Thinking about Aging in Place Improvements
If your home requires updating so that you can age in place, look for a contractor who specializes in home adaption. Also consult with a gerontologist, occupational therapist or other senior care professional during the process, as they’ll be sensitive to the subtleties involved. Think of the “what ifs”: What if I’m in a wheelchair? What if my vision deteriorates? What if I can’t climb stairs safely? Considering the possibilities early on and being proactive will reduce stress, and perhaps the need for major changes later.