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Aging in Place, Part 5: Reaching Compromise with Concerns

aging in placeJamie PurnellComment

Resilience in Aging - A Memory of Chester Grady

Visit the historic  Grady Machine Shop  in Maine

Visit the historic Grady Machine Shop in Maine

For not quite three years we lived in Belfast, Maine.  While there, we lived on the same street as a centenarian named Chester (Chet) Grady and while our road had been renamed officially by the town, it was informally and more popularly knows as "Chester Grady Road" by locals. By the time we met Chester, he was within months of the end of his life. He had a bed set up in the corner of the main room but prior to this very short time in the front room, he'd been climbing the stairs to the same bedroom where he was born (!!!) every night. I found this brief meeting remarkable and it left an impression on me. 

I mention Mr. Grady because his story is unique and interesting but also because it sets the stage for the penultimate blog entry in this Aging in Place series. I'm going to broach the topic of reaching a compromise with our concerns (and fears) about aging. While I've been writing this series, I have wanted to focus not on "disaster" planning, but on an empowering and aesthetic approach to design that encourages us to build homes that we have relationship with; we want our homes to support us in sickness and in health, hopefully, as was the case for Chet Grady, till death do us part!  At the same time, I don't want to leave the impression that all design considerations allowing aging in place have to concurrently assume that our lives will necessarily contain infirmity - rather that what comes, we will be able to handle, with our homes.

Approaching Health Concerns Realistically

Accidents are just that. They happen out of the blue, infrequently, and with surprising outcomes. I generally don't think twice about walking to the grocery store even though I could be run over by a car along the way. It's not something I expect to happen, which doesn't mean it couldn't happen. And as a result, I walk on the correct side of the road, wear appropriate attire to the light conditions, and stay mindful of the cars approaching me in case they appear to be inattentive. In other words, I take active, rational steps to walk safely and thus don't fear overmuch for my safety on the road. Even so, I know accidents can happen.

Planning to build with aging in place in mind should be a hedge and a thought provoking process that does not assume sickness ahead but embraces that change of varying sorts will enter into all of our lives. One thinking about a home shouldn't feel that they can't pursue design as they want it - planning to live our lives fully in a home we love doesn't mean having to set aside certain features, but to consider features fully and evaluate whether they will provide lasting rewards. If you experience health issues now, you're probably not keen to build a home that has a lot of structure in it that poses difficulty (why put a grand staircase in a home if you are currently using a wheelchair?). But if your situation is quite the opposite, you might even view stairs as a part of your daily health routine and want to keep them incorporated for sure. Even in this situation, you might consider ways that the stairs will not make your home uninhabitable should a very serious injury or illness change your circumstances. Another approach, of course, would be to think about whether your lifestyle is one that minimizes future risk for the most part. While we can't prevent every accident, we can do a lot to reduce the likelihood of their happening. And we can do that with our health, to a large degree, as well by eating well, getting regular exercise, etc. 

Summarizing - The Balanced Approach

To briefly summarize, if you want to live in your home "forever" it's important to give due thought to changes that might occur in life. Certainly, we will all age and notice those effects. But consider carefully how to approach the process. Design strives to reflect the character of those living in the space - and that applies whether you are considering yourself in the present or the future. Thoughtful touches can make a big difference in terms of long term viability, but also keep in mind that it makes little sense to build a house that you find unappealing aesthetically because you fear a life with mobility issues that may never materialize. Balance is key.

I've tried to approach this series from a perspective that enables a view of design and the intention to live a long time in the same place as an enjoyable process of discovery rather than one that focuses on scary possibilities and creates a sense of fear. I hope this comes through!  

Aging In Place, Part 4: Right Sizing 101

aging in placeJamie PurnellComment
Serious thought about the right size of a YOUR house is important too!

Serious thought about the right size of a YOUR house is important too!

Big or Small? Right Sizing in a Nutshell

When designing, embrace the idea of right sizing over pre-conceived notions of small and large. It's entirely possible to design a space that's too small as well as too large. Either situation can make a house less optimal for people, and both situations can be prevented to a large degree by careful planning - so long as one has or takes the time to do it. If you're here, reading this, you are probably a fan of smaller spaces. But even for we lovers of small, it's important to keep asking, "What do we need from our homes to accomplish our goals as inhabitants?"  Some general answers might include shelter, safety, a place to enjoy and take pride in, a place near our work (or far from it!). But size matters here, too. Deeper considerations might assess specifics like needing (or not) a garage, a workspace, home office, bedrooms for kids or guests, garden spaces, kitchen with or without extras, areas for entertaining, outdoor rooms...these preferences are heavily influenced by really personal attributes. Do you have a big family? Do you love to entertain or host gatherings?  Are you a cook, an artist, a craftsperson, do you like big open spaces or small cozy ones? What's your climate like? Are you home much? Do you need a huge deck if you have an outdoor window of opportunity only a month or two long? Maybe. Maybe not. Not just our personal preferences, but even our geography can be an influencer in design priorities. 

We have a client NOT including private guest bedrooms as she doesn't want to encourage long visits from her many friends!  Having had too many visitors in past situations, she knows it detracts from her home experience, so she's allowing multifunction spaces to suffice. A space is there, but not so welcoming that it will make for overstaying. Another example...clients have a condo in the city and are designing a second home. It's meant for (big and fairly frequent) family gatherings. Though it won't be their permanent residence, they are even designing in kitchen features that allow for particular family members tastes and lots of bedrooms for kids and grandkids (not all of whom are even here yet!). The second home is, in fact, larger than their main residence - which is in a city and too restricted in size to serve these important needs. In both examples, it's the fulfilling of function that's critical to the client, not size alone. In a nutshell, that's Right Sizing. 

Make Your Own Right Sizing Design Checklist

When you start designing, be honest with your needs and try and make them conform to your own self rather than an imagined ideal. Shawn and I have always felt that most houses are too big, have a lot of wasted space and inefficiency built in. However, we have found, through experience, that 800 square feet is not enough for us. Why?  We both work from home. We also plan to rent part of our home out and/or have an autonomous space for visitors. We grow, cook and preserve a lot of our own food so space is needed for storage and preparation. We live in a climate with a long winter and have activities that we need some space to do inside. Importantly, we are embracing a Passive House building technology that requires even thicker wall assemblies than we've built before. Some of our square footage will be for extra insulation! These are some personal factors on our checklist. It's helped us when we first gape at our square footage calculations and react with "Oh, no, that's too big!"  It helps us answer that question more effectively. Your checklist should provide the same benefit.  Do you need a wine room?  I mean that seriously!  We have friends who are INTO wine - their collection brings them joy and satisfaction, and it takes up a corner of their dining room and expands under the house! Conversely, we are NOT into it - we don't even need a shelf in the pantry for it!  Go to a Home Depot and you'll see wine fridges all over the place as though everyone needs one. So ask YOURSELF the question!  Is this need real or is it put in your head by kitchen and bath design magazines? Either answer is okay if you use the information critically to design a better space for your needs!

If our homes are bigger than we need, they don't offer appropriate payback. They waste space and our time by requiring maintenance, conditioning, cleaning, time, etc. If our homes are too small, they can frustrate us and inhibit our goals. Well designed homes should be tailored to suit. Needs, like body shapes, are non conforming. Insisting that one size fits all isn't an approach that will reap great rewards. In particular when one is building a home to live in for the long term, it's important to have a good grasp of need. 

A Few Last Design Tips

Is the house you're designing too big?  Are you overdoing it on the "Well, I'm only going to build once!" excuse?  Remember that everyone has a budget...overextending it can make a dream home into a nightmare. I'd certainly suggest that building too small is better (or at least less costly?) than building too large, but taste the salt in that, too. If you end up remodeling or expanding when you hadn't wanted to, you're also potentially wasting time and money! Have you looked around the outside of your home for inspiration? Does the home achieve the aesthetic you are striving for?  A cute cottage design can get lost if it expands a great deal. Likewise, a modern beachfront design you love may not compress well. And surroundings can play into that as well. Does your surrounding support the aesthetic you're embracing?  It might matter. Does the space you are designing advance the "cause" of the inhabitants? Does it provide the shelter, comfort and safety you want? Does it promote creative or well flowing aspects of your life?  Does the size do something for you or does it make life more difficult?

My last bit of advice is to keep asking these and other questions as you meander the design process. A key to aging in place successfully is for our homes to be scaled to the users and rightly sized.

Aging In Place, Part 3: Designing for Change

aging in placeJamie PurnellComment

Designing for the long-term, It's not just for Retirees!

Working in residential design, with clients in different locations, of varying ages and life stages, and with all kinds of needs and outlooks on life has taught us a great deal. One of the lessons learned has been that no matter your age or the size of your house, it's worth spending time considering accessibility issues for one's home - especially if you are planning to live in it for a long time. Even people not considering building from scratch give a lot of thought to how their homes will serve or pose challenges as they age or circumstances change. Very few Americans will live in the same home for their entire lives - see Five Thirty Eight. But in just my small social circle, several friends and family members do fit the bill of planning to stay in their homes "forever." So here are some thoughts on designing a space that will allow you to age in place a little more easily. Not all of these suggestions involve the expectation of major mobility issues and most of them could also apply to people choosing to retrofit their homes to make things more smooth flowing.

A one story home with limited steps and multiple access points makes for an easy entry. The gardens will require lots of upkeep!

A one story home with limited steps and multiple access points makes for an easy entry. The gardens will require lots of upkeep!

Accessible Landscape & Barrier Free Entries

A recent client described to us the house she plans to build later this year and one of the things she emphasized was a low maintenance yard with easy access.  She wanted a deck but one with a minimum of stairs (preferably just one) to allow accessibility for herself and any friends who might visit, regardless of physical condition. She wanted to keep gardens to a minimum and maintain as much of the native flora as possible as it was already self sustaining and would not require a ton of work to keep up. This was partly out of consideration of her time and how she wanted to spend it - and also forward thinking; an easy to maintain yard is just that, no matter your age or physical condition. If you don't crave a garden area and derive a lot of satisfaction from the upkeep involved, it's worth thinking about. Similarly, as regards outdoor features like decks, ponds, garages, gazebos, etc...take some time to think about their maintenance when you are designing. There are a variety of lower maintenance materials available now (composite decking that is impervious to rot and requires no staining, for example) to cut down on how much work has to go toward upkeep. Likewise, if you are concerned about access to your home, consider minimizing or eliminating stairs or creating alternate pathways that might be easier to use in case of mobility issues. Maybe your foundation choices will influence the layout of your land and entrances to your home (eg: a slab, a walkout basement, or a crawlspace foundation all have different tendencies when it comes to entrances, especially when paired with the geographic quirks of your building envelope - is your site sloped, for example?)

Floor Planning for Long Term Usability

Long-term living solutions don't have to look sterile, they can follow any style!  Photo Credit:  Innovative Building Solutions

Long-term living solutions don't have to look sterile, they can follow any style!

Photo Credit: Innovative Building Solutions

When considering your floor plan, give a little thought to whether or not you want multiple stories or a single floor layout. Some people find that as they age, kids move out, etc. second floor bedrooms either aren't used as much or won't be as easily useful. On the other hand, you may really like the aesthetic that a multi story home has and want to consider ways to repurpose rooms as needs evolve. It's also perfectly true that not everyone worries a great deal about mobility compromises and so stairs don't pose an issue. We have friends who love their home just as it is - so much so that they'd sooner install an in home elevator than even consider moving. Again, details that thinking ahead of time can resolve to one's satisfaction. Your approach will depend on a lot of factors, current needs and conditions, finances, perceived likelihood of future conditions and needs.  It's easy during the design process to identify a part of the house that could allow for a future renovation in case needs change or as money allows. A lot of clients have had situations where they design with the intention to knock out a wall in the future - sometimes for growing kids, sometimes to create more space or a first floor bedroom/ensuite if needed or desired.  If you are designing for a new build, you can even frame up a wall with door headers pre installed for future expansion. A little bit of imagination can pay off pretty handsomely if you try and consider multiple outcomes and uses when doing your design work.

Other Areas for Accessibility Considerations

Other areas that bear a lot of forethought in design are kitchens and bathrooms. There are so many reasons to reflect on how they can be made easy to use, keep clean, and provide a barrier free or full accessibility in most conditions. The idea behind barrier free spaces in buildings is that anyone can use them. That means a person using a wheelchair could get around independently in that space. In a bathroom, think of the challenges posed by typical things encountered there. Imagine getting into a deep tub if you were having issues with stability or had recent surgery on your knee or required wheels. Climbing into and out of tubs can be hard even when you're feeling great if you aren't paying attention. Talk about potentially slick surfaces!  So walk in and out showers (with or without a standalone tub) are a huge area where a bathroom can offer far greater long term access. Likewise, grab rails can be an easy installation and simple solution to all sorts of potentialities. We installed our first European style "wet room" this build using material purchased from a company called Trending Accessibilty. We love it. It's incredibly easy to clean the simple tile surfaces, and the long central drain is both good looking and useful in that all the mop water can be sent right down the drain. The glass wall is actually easy to clean, and prevents water from splashing all over the place. We can just walk right into our shower. Likewise, we could wheel in, if needed, as there's no curb to get over. We chose to install a free standing tub along with the shower for times when we want a soak, but a side benefit is that it stays clean - no shower curtain leaving soap scum at the edges, it's easy to wash and keep up with.

The kitchen is an area that I've already spent a lot of time considering how to make more accessible and barrier free because I don't crack the five foot height mark. So I've got plenty of experience with too tall shelves and difficult to reach areas. Kitchens pose special challenges and can be designed well to cover any capacity or life stage. For myself, I want to incorporate slightly lower countertops, but not so low that my taller husband couldn't comfortably cook. I want enough space between the countertops to flow in that comfortable triangle so idealized in kitchen design. For me, an L shaped kitchen will allow this and work stylistically. It would also be a great shape for someone with a wheelchair. Every point easily accessed with no galley shape restricting flow or turnaround. Some advanced consideration of appliances might point you toward ADA compliant options, like this.  In terms of cabinetry, interior drawer systems that pull out are easier to work with and require less stooping and hunting for "that thing" at the back of the cupboard. I have used these types of cabinet inserts in our latest kitchen and I love them!  For a cook of any ability level (and here I am referring to physical ability, not culinary skill), this is a great gift to have!  And fun!  Useful and immediately helpful. 

I also think some care and thought can and should be given to house cleaning whilst in the design phase. Stairs can be a pain to vacuum. Maybe you don't want them at all or want easy to sweep stair surfaces. Deep tubs are a tripping hazard and involve some hands and knee work for cleaning. Are they worth it to you? (No wrong answers here). How about locating the laundry. Do you like to line dry in the summer?  Having a door out nearby might be nice. Do you eat outside often?  Consider a pass through window or door that allows access to the outdoors right from the kitchen. Cleaning is a necessary chore that can be fun but sometimes isn't. Put some time into imagining how to have a cleaning program that can be flexible with you regardless of time or other constraints on ability. Storage solutions shouldn't require pulling out step stools all the time. Pay attention to landscape and factor in your interest and energy levels. Perhaps you want to consider ways to make some aspects of gardening require less bending and being hunched over. Raised beds and elevated planters could help with this. Gardens are such an interest area of mine that I think I could write a whole article on it, especially as I get older and learn to be more cagey in structuring my all day gardening adventures in consideration of my back muscles! 

Aging in Place is Different for Everybody

Final thoughts for this blog entry include emphasizing that design should ultimately be fun and liberating process. Since we're talking about planning for long term usability and function, liberating takes on multiple meanings. One shouldn't assume that a wheelchair or a massive change in mobility is in the cards for them. But all of our abilities will change as we age. Life is a spectrum, not a few age points on a line. Our needs change with age, with family size, with things that we want to pursue.  Well considered needs should be a part of designing our homes. Some extra thought can have a wonderful impact and give you more confidence that your home will continue to provide a refuge for you and your loved ones. If you are someone who has concerns now that will impact them in the future (joint issues, MS, being very short or very tall, just being thoughtful, you name it) designing a home that will rise to meet and assist you rather than foil you will be rewarding for years to come.