It is often an accepted norm in our society that what’s good for one must be good for all. And it would certainly seem to apply to the concepts and design philosophies of aging in place.
But the “one size fits all” philosophy may just not be the case since people age differently based on health, socio-economics or the region of the country they live in. Their needs may be different if they have to deal with a genetic disability at an early age or have an accident that is crippling. And our homes may not easily accommodate short visits by an elder guest or longer stays by an ailing family member.
So a “curated design approach” may be the right solution to better address one’s individual needs. Here are some examples.
--Aging in place conventions often indicate that taller toilet seats are the best choice, those approximately 2 inches taller than traditional toilets, and make sitting down and standing up easier. But are they are not right for everyone, especially if one is shorter than 5’4”?
• Solution? Consider the height of the individuals before choosing to swap out a toilet for a taller one.
--Keeping a bathroom or a kitchen clean and sanitary is a necessity to avoid the build up of bacteria, a serious problem for those who may have an immune deficiency or compromised systems.
• Solution? Sealing all floors, tiles and counters with a penetrating sealer and installing a humidistat switch that turns an exhaust fan on and off in response to changing humidity levels, can reduce and may eliminate the build-up of mold and mildew.
--At first glance, walk-in tubs seem like such a great idea over a conventional tub. But it’s complicated. While water can be quite therapeutic, these tubs may not be for everyone. To use one of these tubs, there is a step up thru then a rather small watertight door that requires a bit of negotiation to get up the step and into the interior.
Then one must move about to be able to close the door to be seated. Once seated, there is wait for several minutes the water to fill and once the bathing is complete, another wait for the water to drain before the door can be unlocked to exit.
• Solution? With prices that can be upwards of $15,000 installed, a better investment may very well be a size appropriate shower with a bench, a balance bar, floor drain and no curb at the entry.
--Building in a bench in a shower is a great idea. But is it for everyone? Often benches are placed away from the controls and shower head, sometimes designed near the entry to the space. As a result, they often become a place to prop up a leg or a place for the shampoo bottle.
• Solution? A moveable bench or a portable stool may be a better concept since one can adjust the placement or take it out of the shower altogether to maximize the space for maneuvering around.
--Scalding of overly sensitive or thin skin by overly hot water can be devastating. And the concern isn’t just in a shower. Overly hot water can be a danger in the kitchen, utility and laundry.
• Solution? A simple preventive action can be taken thru the installation of a whole house anti-scald valve at the outlet line side of the hot water tank and set at no more than 120 degrees.
--Small houses and small bathrooms can be an issue when it becomes necessary to create an accessible space. But adding on to a home may not be practical nor cost effective.
• Solution? Consider a “cantilevered bump-out” on an exterior wall to add a much needed 15 to 20 square feet to the footprint of the bathroom. Even just that additional small amount of square feet can permit greater accessibility.
--Technological advances can provide support for one who desires to remain independent in their home. As an example WI-FI cameras might permit a caregiver to check in on a loved one from time to time. But they can be perceived as intrusive to some.
Solution? Evermind (https://evermind.us) helps families to keep an eye on an older loved one by monitoring the usage of something such as a light by the bed or appliance like a coffee pot. Families or caregivers can spot breaks in routines that might indicate there may be a problem. The Wi-Fi modules plug into standard outlets and messages are sent to caregivers about usage patterns.
--Personal security is a worry and concern with everyone these days, but for those with a mobility disability or living alone, it can be very disconcerting.
• Solution? Wi-Fi connected dead bolts and door cams provide extra security and convenience especially for those who may be bed ridden. Connected to a cell phone or an iPad, an individual maintains control over who can enter the residence.
--Many aging boomers express a desire to remain in their homes living an independent life they determine for themselves. But isolation, lack of support services and social interaction can and do present their own issues.
• Solution? More than a neighborhood, a “virtual village” gives elders a better chance to stay in their own home longer by creating communal support services that provide a variety of volunteer services in an area or region — including grocery delivery, lawn mowing and transportation — and also connect members with paid service providers who understand the challenges of the aging process.
And by bringing together a group of individuals with similar needs, the benefits provide a unique social connection, build an extended family network and eliminate the isolation that can come as friends and neighbors pass or move away.
--And finally, the words age and aging have a negative connotation in our society. No one wants to admit they are getting older and may not have all the functional abilities or faculties they once had. Nor do they want to give up their home, a place where families were raised, memories made, and mortgages were paid.
I have a unique passion for creating spaces that are safe and secure and that allow for anyone of any age or ability to remain in their home should they choose. And it seems that many of the 76 million baby boomers are choosing to do just that. But many are in denial about their age or ability and resistant to making changes to their residence that would help them "age in place"... or as I prefer to say it these days... Stay In Place.
So it wasn’t too long ago when I got a call from a prospective client who was asking if I could come to her house and make some recommendations for creating an accessible bath…. You know… the kind of bath that makes it safer and easy to get in and out of.
When I climbed the steps to the door, I was greeted thru a small window next to the entry door by a very large, well coiffed white standard-sized poodle. The bark was loud but it was easy to tell, she was a friendly beast.
The small door was edged opened by an equally small elder woman also with well-coiffed white hair. I introduced myself while she held this monumental dog from jumping all over me. Stepping in, I came thru the doorway noting the rather high threshold should be level or at least made smaller and the door should be wider if at all possible.
We exchanged pleasant greetings while I reached out to pat the dog, this sizeable animal excitably slipping and sliding on the tile floors to greet this new visitor. ( I got this visual in my brain of both this diminutive individual and a jumbo dog skating across the floor everyday to meet the mailman or Fed-ex driver or whomever climbed the steps to ring the doorbell.)
The lady led me thru the well-kept residence to a small bedroom and into the bathroom, a bath very typical of the mid-century homes in the neighborhood. (This one was caught in a time capsule, perfectly preserved in dove gray bath fixtures and petal pink ceramic tiles.)
“Here is my problem,” she said. “I can no longer lift Norma Desmond into the bathtub to give her a bath and I want one of those barrier free showers that I read about in my AARP magazine.” ( Another visual… this very sweet white-haired lady, who is not much bigger than her dog, trying to get Norma into the existing tub. ) “Of course,” I said grinning. “A curb-less shower entry would also make it easier when you need to shower on your own.”
And with a very straight face, she aptly replied, “I never thought of it that way. I usually just climb in next to Norma and take my bath along with her. After all, we are in a drought here in California.” ( Then another brain visual… these two entities, one very large and one very small, each with white hair, each soaking wet in a bathtub that was clearly made for one standard sized person, bathing together yet saving water. )
After discussing some of the details of how a new accessible shower would be designed, I explained that it would be good to have bench, a textured tile on the floor and plywood installed behind the tile walls so that a balance bar could be securely installed on it. Of course, I had to explain what a balance bar was… a much better name for a well-designed version of the typical gas-station grab bar. After a bit of thought, she clearly indicated that having a “grab” bar in the shower would make it ugly. “I doubt that Norma would like it either.”
(Hmm… didn’t know Norma had a vote but I was still visualizing she and Norma in that tub together and all that wet white stringy hair. )
We concluded our initial meeting and promised that I would get her a proposal for the design services we would provide. After putting some time in on the project, I called and let her know how we’d work and the time frame to get plans pulled together.
She provided her immediate blessing to move on with the design of her new accessible shower including the bench and the textured tile for the flooring but without any balance bar. When I asked, she said Norma doesn’t need it. When I asked her about would happen if she should suddenly fall. Without breaking for a breath, she said, “It won’t be a problem. Should something like that happen, I can always grab onto Norma if I go down..”
( Again another visual…. But I’d rather not go there right now. )
Sometimes people can be in denial even when they have a balance dog like Norma.
Michael is an award winning interior designer based in Palm Desert, CA. He is a Professional Member of the American Society of Interior Designers and a member of the ASID College of Fellows.
As a Certified Aging In Place Specialist, he creates smart looking spaces that are safe and secure and create homes for a lifetime.
And with thirty plus years in the profession, he has honed his humor, elevated his passion for design and sharpened his wit to not take anything too seriously except his design work.