Aging In Place, Part 3: Designing for Change

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.