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Aging in Place- 5 Easy Ways to Incorporate Universal Design

Aging in place is the big thing in interior design right now, and why wouldn’t it be? Homes should be designed to last, so of course they need to continue working for us as we age within them. However, aging in place should not simply mean “getting old”. In fact, it doesn’t even need to have a focus on aging at all. Design should be universal, meaning that spaces should work for a 5’-0” pregnant mother with a toddler. The spaces should work for the toddler. They should work well for grandma when she comes to visit. Spaces should work for the mother’s blind brother who lives in the basement. They should be comfortable for her uncle who has chemical sensitivities. What about her husband who is 6’-7”?

Universal design is a way of considering aging in place while remembering that people are all different, with different abilities, statures, senses, and ideas of comfort. This is why I always look at the heights of my clients. I ask about company- who are the regular guests? Are there any guests with disabilities? Are there children to consider? Furbabies?

As much as possible, I want to imagine that all those people are using the space… because we never know who may visit later, who may buy the home in the future.

Quick and Easy Ways to Make Your Home Universal

1- Consider height and reach

We’ve seen the stools that tuck into a cabinet toe-kick (and if you haven’t, take a look in my Pinterest Board on the beauty of Universal Design). A few other fantastic options are the ovens that hinge on the side, so the user does not need to lean over or reach past a door to access the oven. With any items that are daily use or important use, keep them at a height of 48” or lower, and keep in mind that reaching over a counter will make it harder to reach!

2- Consider grasp

Photo courtesy of  George Becker

Photo courtesy of George Becker

As we age, arthritis kicks in. Additionally, people with motor skill difficulties such as MS may have trouble grasping. Look to levers instead of knobs on doors and pulls over knobs on cabinets. Think about replacing toggle light switches with rocker switches, to avoid grasping issues. Push button switches can also be a great option. Think about plumbing fixtures, are the handles single-hand levers, or even better, touch or motion activated?

3- Think about access

Doorways on the ground level should all be 36” wide. No, this is not a requirement by code… but it is the smart and considerate thing to do. I was recently at a home with a 30” walkway between the kitchen perimeter and island, and all the doors were 32” wide. The home belonged to a woman who had a degenerative disease and was planning for her life in a wheelchair.

Also, I know that freestanding tubs are all the rage right now, but can we please consider cleanability and access? Make sure little people and people with movement restrictions can step over the edge safely. Cleaning behind and around a freestanding tub that is near a wall, is not going to be an easy task either. I hate to say it, but I see freestanding tubs being the drop-in tubs of the 80’s…

4- Make it light, but not glaring

Natural lighting is a wonderful way to provide visibility and in the Pacific Northwest, we are constantly in desperate need of daylight. But, glare is a completely different story. My family is currently in the midst of a home purchase (story for another time), and one of the first things I noticed was a darling eating nook. No glass table there, or I’ll be starting my mornings with a migraine! Additionally, people with vision impairments that enhance glare (such as cataracts) will have a hard time in spaces with glare. Because we all love our daylight here, I recommend light filtering shades. I also love curtains that pull completely off the window for a stack on the side.

5- Keep transitions gradual

I know the thick tile would look fantastic in the bathroom, but when upgrading from vinyl to tile, the thickness will absolutely be a factor for those who are stepping into the space. This goes for people with natural clutziness too… trust me, I should know! Rugs should have a low pile also to prevent tripping. Don’t forget to use a nonslip rug pad!!

I recently visited a client’s home who had purchased rugs from Ruggable, and I have to say I was very impressed! Though, for sustainability purposes, I like to shop preowned/refurbished rugs first.

There you have it- 5 simple ways to consider aging in your home, as well as the comfort of guests! Oh wait!!! I have a bonus one:

6- Don’t forget sensory comfort!

Many people have chemical sensitivities and can easily be overstimulated. I love spaces filled with energy, color, and pattern.. but everything should be done in moderation. There IS too much of a good thing. Now, go unplug all your air fresheners, grab a few fresh bouquets and open the windows instead!