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Aging in Place: Senior Living and Universal Design

Sarah Stevenson
By Sarah StevensonMay 15, 2013

Architecture for seniors doesn’t have to be sterile. The latest movement in multigenerational housing, universal design, promises appeal and accessibility.

Photo credit: criswatk, EverydayStockPhoto.com

As baby boomers age — and watch their parents contend with the complexities of senior housing — the concept of aging in place becomes ever more appealing. In fact, according to an AARP survey, as many as 90% of older adults would like to remain in their own homes throughout their golden years. The concept of universal design arose to address preferences like these. Beyond that, it aims to promote multi-generational housing that’s as friendly to the needs of the grandkids as it is to the grandparents.

What Is Universal Design?

Even in the context of senior living, universal design is far more than just ADA compliance or accessibility. The National Association of Home Builders defines universal design as “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”

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Rather than a sterile hospital-like environment filled with grab bars and wheelchair ramps, or a “Peter Pan house” that assumes its residents will never grow old, a universally designed home is convenient for an age-diverse population without overtly suggesting old age—or any other age, for that matter. Of course, it does include features that are designed to provide independence even to the very elderly: no-step entry, wide doorways and hallways, and good lighting with easy-to-use rocker switches, to name just a few.

There are a number of goals for this type of design, says the Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (IDeA Center), such as body fit that covers a wide range of sizes; design that helps with promoting wellness and preventing injury; and personalization, so that residents have an element of choice and individuality in their environment.

Architects Call Universal Design “Enabling Rather than Disabling”

With these goals in mind, architects and builders can create housing that avoids feeling institutional or like an “old folks’ home.” Instead, the result is “stuff that works well and looks good,” as Richard Duncan, executive director of the RL Mace Universal Design Institute, refers to it. It will have perks like non-skid bathroom tile and control-panel lighting switches, as well as stylish design for appliances and interiors.

“The nice thing about all these kinds of features is that they are unobtrusive,” says Jon Pynoos, USC professor and director of the National Resource Center on Supportive Housing and Home Modification, in an article on MSN Real Estate. “You wouldn’t notice them.”

Jenny Sullivan, who writes for Builder magazine, refers to this type of design as “enabling rather than disabling.” That is, “the new universal design is pretty, easy to use, and has high-tech functionality that is nearly invisible”—that’s the opinion of Brookfield, Connecticut-based kitchen designer Mary Jo Peterson. “Right now this is a concept that is age driven, but truly the target should be everybody.”

Do you think universal design will catch on and improve community living, or is it a flash in the pan? Feel free to join the discussion about senior living and universal design in the comments.

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Sarah Stevenson
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Sarah Stevenson
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