Smarter Design For Aging in Place

Well peeps – I’ve not seen 50 yet but I admit that I have begun counting the gray hairs – and the reflection I catch in the window of my car as I approach . . . well….let’s just say: She’s not getting older, she’s getting better.

OK – she IS getting older. (I keep telling Steven I’m getting better. The power of suggestion…) Between you and I – I’m just getting older. As are we all. And so I thought it wise to take a sec to speak to you wisely about the power of design to keep people living in their homes a long as possible.

First here are some sobering statistics about the aging of America: (This is a good time to get a martini, or Novocaine.)

*America is aging

*Currently 20% of the US population is 65+

*By 2030, 1 in 5 Americans will be 60+

*Surveys show that the vast majority of us want to stay in our homes as long as possible.

(This next part is where you need the martini)

*As we age, changes in our eyes (flattening & thickening of the cornea, yellowing of the lens and reduction of the action of the pupil) (martini slurp….) change the way we see and negotiate color, pattern, space and – all of the environment we call home.

*Falls send 1.8 million people age 65+ to the emergency room each year.

(And hey – these falls are not from doing heroic, difficult things like climbing ladders or moonwalking on the banister….no-no….they just . . . happen . . walking in the home, rising room a chair, etc.)

*90% of these falls will result in hip fractures and of those:

-50% will be discharged to a nursing home

-25% will result in death

-(Can I refill that drink for ya yet?)

Welp – yet again. Design to the rescue. There is a big push in the design community regarding how to design to aid people in staying safely in their homes as long as possible…now called in my world…”Aging In Place.” Here are some very real things you can do if you are ‘of a certain age’ or currently designing a home in a 55+ community for yourself or for a loved one.

Reduce Trip Traps.
Start with the obvious. Reduce clutter – to included editing and thinning out packed-in furnishings. Clear walking areas within rooms and hallways. Test furniture for stability too. As we age and lose joint function and strength, people tend to lean on furnishings for balance or to push up and out of chairs. Thus in these instances, I like to do tables with 4 legs rather than pedestals tables. No drop leaf tables or gatelegs, please – as these too are less stable when pushed on at their edge. And best to avoid casters on chairs unless they are front-leg only casters, which are less like to roll out form under someone. AND – exposed leg chars are preferred to skirted chairs for easy of entry and exit. Nix the area rugs – or tape them down if you must keep them. And upholstery should be deep enough for comfort, but not so deep that rising is a challenge…believe it or not – this alone can (and does) cause falls. A good designer can help evaluate and plan here if you’re confused on body proportion and ideal upholstery fit.

(Pictured here: This unskirted chair has good upper back support and because of the open leg design, it allows someone to tuck a foot under the chair safely in order to rise. The gate-leg table however is not an ideal choice.)

Color Smart.
As the lens of the eye yellows, so too does our perception of color. Whites begin to look yellow-ish. The older we get, the more difficult it becomes to perceive difference between dark shades like blue, purple and red. In addition being able to distinguish between closely related colors like blue & green or yellow & pale green becomes more challenging. Better to go for some rich color contrasts – blue & yellow or green & cranberry for example. Monochromatic interiors are a no-no as are pastels as these too do not provide enough color contrast to be easily seen. I have looked at these things – to include pattern – through specially made looking glasses that simulate aging vision and let me tell you – things look a whole lot different. Designers will actually use these lens simulators in order to check patterns and colors for a design done for an aging client.

Pattern Prudently.
As we age and our center of gravity shifts, we begin to rely more heavily on visual cues. But since sight has been altered somewhat as well – greater caution in design is needed to provide strong and clear visual cues that aid in balance and movement. A busy pattern on a rug or on a tiled floor can create a phenomenally unsure sense of footing for the aging baby boomer. Go simple and solid on floors. Period.

Let there Be Light.
Light yes. But watch the glare. Here’s a sticky one. As the pupil’s functioning slowly diminishes, so too does our ability to focus indoors. The need for more lighting in areas like stairwells is critical. So is elevated task lighting to support hobbies like reading or knitting. Yet – the aging boomer will also develop a greater sensitivity to glare so do avoid positioning furniture so it looks directly at a window, particularly in southern exposure. Better to have the back of the sofa against the window rather than looking into it.

(Pictured here: Although the sofa positioning with the back to the window is good, the sofa itself is somewhat hazardous in safe design for “Aging In Place”. The skirted sofa is not ideal not only due to its skirt, but also it is too deep and offers little back support. It will be difficult to get out of. If you must do an area rug, better to tape it down and go solid.)

These are just a few of the modifications that you can do for yourself or family. It gets far more complex than this – but this is a good start. If the goal is to support independent, healthy living at home for as long as possible, planning a home design with a smart eye and glad heart will reap great rewards. And if it all seems too overwhelming for you – find a sensitive designer who can honestly assess current furnishings for safety, support and good body -fit – as well as help set up a wonderful interior from color to light to functioning – all with an eye toward healthful functioning for a long time to come. With a side order of beauty of course.

I wonder where I put my reading glasses?