Livable design helps baby boomers age at home

Liz Seegert

About Liz Seegert

Liz Seegert (@lseegert), is AHCJ’s topic editor on aging. Her work has appeared in Kaiser Health News, The Atlantic.com, New America Media, AARP.com and other outlets. She is a senior fellow at the Center for Health, Media & Policy at Hunter College in New York City, and co-produces HealthStyles for WBAI-FM/Pacifica Radio.

Image by David Illig via flickr.

Image by David Illig via flickr.

Unlike past generations of retirees, most aging baby boomers say they want to remain in their own homes as they get older, yet most don’t make the appropriate renovations to do so. A survey of boomer-age adults shows that while 40 percent plan to remodel their homes, only 21 percent think about their own health and aging as part of those plans.

However, when universal design features are pointed out, the majority said they would consider including them.

“Remodeling provides natural opportunities to consider important design changes,” Jodi Olshevski, gerontologist and executive director of The Hartford Center for Mature Market Excellence said in a phone interview. “It’s a perfect time to include universal, or livable design features that will make their homes easier to live in as they age.”

Livable design incorporates features like level thresholds between adjacent rooms, D or U-shaped handles instead of doorknobs, grab bars in the tub or shower, and single-lever faucet handles.

The online study of a representative sample of 1,096 adults between the ages of 51 and 69 was conducted jointly by the Center and the University of Southern California’s Davis School of Gerontology. (See the survey summary.)

For many boomers, “it’s totally worth it to renovate and stay as long as possible,” said Lori Miller, an interior designer from Huntington, N.Y. Miller said that many of the features found in livable design help to increase the value of the home, should the owner eventually need to move.

“If a homeowner is renovating their kitchen or bathroom, which are the most common updates, it’s very easy and cost-effective to incorporate some additional features that make it easier to do things like prepare food, prevent trips and falls and generally make being at home safer,” she said.

Some easy-to-incorporate changes include modifying the height of kitchen counters and bathroom vanities, installing walk-in tubs or European-style, no-threshold showers and widening doorways. The goal is to make the home accessible and barrier free. Some new designs and fixtures are so stylish it’s hard to tell that they’re there because of aging needs, Olshevski noted.

“Lighting is so critical too,” said Miller. “As we age our eyesight generally gets worse, so having more lighting and brighter colors makes it easier to navigate.” So are simple changes like replacing carpeting with tile or wood floors, to reduce trip hazards and make it easier to use a wheelchair or walker, should that be necessary.

Addressing acoustics and hearing loss are another challenge, according to the American Association of Interior Designers (ASID). Hearing problems can make it difficult to use the phone, hear doorbells, and alarms. However, there are steps designers can take to alleviate some of the problems like reducing background noise from sources such as music, mechanical sounds and noisy air conditioning and installing door chimes or a flashing light connected to the doorbell in several locations.

While often used interchangeably, there are distinct differences in design terms, according to ASID. Both designers and homeowners should be clear about their intentions.

  • Accessible design – products, technologies and built environments that are accessible to and useable by persons with disabilities, who otherwise would be denied access
  • Adaptable design – planning and construction that anticipates modification of a built environment in order to accommodate actual or potential changes in ability and mobility due to illness, injury or aging to support independent living; sometimes referred to as flexible, or flex, design
  • Lifespan design – products, technologies and built environments that accommodate, or can be adapted to accommodate, changes in ability and mobility throughout the life stage and age continuum
  • Universal design – products, technologies and built environments that are accessible to and useable by everyone; sometimes referred to as “design-for-all”

Boomers are changing the landscape of what it means to age, Olshevski noted. “They’re not necessarily retiring and moving to retirement locations like their parents did. They think differently about the aging process.”

Adult children in their 50s and 60s may also need to renovate because an older parent or other relative moves in, she said. So, while the initial remodel happens because it’s good for mom or dad, they end up benefiting down the line too.

Miller advised that homeowners who want to remodel with aging in place in mind meet with an interior designer who is certified by the American Society of Interior Designers and is familiar with their aging-in-place design principles, or one that is a certified aging-in-place specialist (CAPS) through the National Association of Home Builders. “The designer should take factors such as lifestyle, health conditions, budget and community into account.”

However, while home remodeling to foster aging-in-place is a good solution for many, others may benefit by moving to a smaller or single-story home, or perhaps into an apartment, Miller said. Whatever the choice, boomers should be aware of their long-term needs when it comes to home function, and some important changes will enable them to at home for many more years.

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