Universal Design: Helping Older Adults Maintain Their Independence
The principles of universal design making a home as easy to live in as it is beautiful can allow older adults to live independently longer.
Not thrilled with the prospect of moving during their older years, baby boomers Lew and Ellen Petticrew added universal design features to their Charlotte, North Carolina dream house. When relocating to Virginia, middle-agers Dean and Betsy Frazen bought a life-span-design home because it felt comfortable and homey. And New Yorker Rosemary Bakker made simple modifications to her mother's home, enabling her mother to live independently for an additional eight years.
"We're planning ahead for our empty nest and retirement years," says Ellen Petticrew. "But a lot of the decisions were made for aesthetic reasons."
Functional and Attractive
Unobtrusive, attractive, and practical, universal design creates environments with minimal hazards that people of all ages and abilities will find useful. Many elements decrease the need for bending, lifting, or reaching, but the term also applies to consumer products designed for simplicity and convenience.
"Universal design has to be invisible and blend with the existing design of the home," says Dick Duncan, director of the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University. "It must have a normal and natural appearance, be every bit as effective, and be easier to use. The design features don't call attention to themselves but make a huge difference in people's lives."
Age and Independence
Advancing age and conditions such as arthritis can make getting around, opening doors, and stepping into the tub more difficult. Not surprisingly, studies show that most middle-age or older adults want to continue living in their own homes for as long as possible. Universal design features can help make that possible.
Some universal concepts, such as step-less entries and wider halls and doorways, entail more effort and are sometimes only possible during the building of a new home or the remodeling of an existing one.
When architect Bill Devereaux designed the National Association of Home Builders' Lifestages ‘99 house, he included skylights to brighten the entryway and halls, added three different levels of countertops to accommodate those who prefer standing and sitting, raised the dishwasher, and contrasted countertop trim and surface colors. He also adjusted the height of rocker-style light switches and electrical outlets and installed a kitchen sink that moved up and down.
"I tried to keep in mind that not everybody ends up in a wheelchair, but they end up, usually, with some diminishing skills," says Devereaux. "Many things, like contrasting the color of the walls from the color of the floors, are subtle things that don't cost much to do."
Duncan says the best time to introduce universal features to an existing home is when people are renovating for another reason. People in this situation might consider the following suggestions:
The experts say that little things count, too. For example, reorganize cupboards to store frequently accessed items between waist and shoulder height, and switch to lever-style handles and faucets to aid in opening doors and turning on water.
Putting It All Together
"A lot we did with color, lighting and flooring products, along with grab bars. Minor changes have a major impact on the quality of life," says Bakker, a certified interior designer, gerontologist and research associate in Gerontologic Design at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University. "I used the color-contrasting theory to separate the foreground from the background. Some of the chairs I did in a lighter or darker color, depending on the color of the flooring." Using contrasting colors can make it easier to see things like grab bars, light switches, and cabinet handles.
Assistive devices and home modifications help people to age gracefully and with dignity, because they enable them to do more for themselves. By incorporating universal design when planning renovations or building new homes, older adults can enjoy the best of all worlds: convenience, aesthetics, and peace of mind.
Inexpensive and easily implemented modifications and assistive devices can dramatically improve an older person's well-being even when large-scale renovations are not possible. William C. Mann, OTR, PhD, chairman of the University of Florida's Occupational Therapy Department, found in a controlled trial that frail older adults who used assistive devices experienced less functional decline and pain and needed less health care assistance than did similar functioning elders without devices.
By "giving people what they needed, they remained more independent," Mann says. "The devices were not really expensive high-tech devices. They assisted with bathing, grooming, dressing, mobility."
The experts recommend several relatively minor things people can do in an effort to stay independent:
"There's something like 24 or 25,000 different assistive devices available," Mann says. "Find things that will make life easier and safer, and it will make a difference. The more people use these tools, the more active they are going to be. And they will be healthier as a result."
Center for Assistive Technology
Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access, State University of New York at Buffalo
Canadian Healthcare Network
Seniors Canada On-line
Bakker R. Elderdesign: Designing and Furnishing a Home for Your Later Years . Penguin USA; 1997.
Fixing to stay: a national survey on housing and home modification issues. American Association of Retired Persons website. Available at: http://research.aarp.org .
Universal design home modification devices. American Association of Retired Persons website. Available at: http://www.aarp.org/universalhome/ .
What is universal design? The basics of building homes for the safety, comfort and convenience of everyone. American Association of Retired Persons website. Available at: http://www.aarp.or.... Published September 30, 2009. Accessed August 9, 2011.
Last reviewed August 2011 by Brian Randall, MD