New Ideas for Aging in Place and UD

authors Jamie Gold | October 24, 2016

When you think about Universal Design or aging in place, you likely call to mind a boomer or senior remodeling a kitchen or bath for better accessibility. This is certainly a thriving segment, and will continue to expand as the massive baby-boom generation continues to move into their 60s, 70s and beyond.

But you’d be wrong if this is the only population that comes to mind for accessibility needs. Sports injuries, car accidents, combat injuries, illness and blindness affect younger generations, too, and call for new kitchen and bathroom design paradigms.

Will you be ready if a prospective client calls with special needs? Are you manufacturing or selling products to this demographic? If not, you could be missing out on a rewarding experience – both professionally and personally – in shaping spaces that make it possible for people of all abilities to fulfill their potential.

“In 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 56.7 million people in the U.S. have one or more disabilities. That’s 19%, or one in every five people living in this country,” reports the ADA National Network. One in five!

This includes 22.5 million adults with blindness, according to the National Health Interview Survey and the American Foundation for the Blind.

It includes 1,645 veteran amputees since 9/11, and more than 400,000 cases of veteran traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to the Congressional Research Service. (And vets are not the only populations dealing with these issues.)

The University of Alabama National Spinal Cord Injury Statistic Center estimates, “As of 2015, between 240,000 and 337,000 are currently living with SCI in the U.S. [and] approximately 12,500 new injuries occur each year.” Car accidents, violence and falls account for 86% of these catastrophic injuries, and 56% impact 16 to 30 year olds, the report adds.

Then there are those 76 million baby boomers, many of whom are homeowners, and the millions of seniors in their 70s and older – 90% of whom want to remain in their own homes after they retire, according to AARP. That is a huge, very-well-financed opportunity!

Retailers and manufacturers are certainly taking note of this, and Universal Design products are no longer a barren desert of tasteless ugliness. You can now find attractive cabinets, plumbing products and accessories suitable for both mainstream and higher-end projects.

As more Americans take on obstacle course racing, triathlons, trail running, rock climbing and other risky, challenging pursuits in their desire to remain fit, more clients will be looking for accessibility solutions at home.

Plumbing brands got the message from both resistant consumers and reluctant designers. “We learned there are stigmas attached to installing bath safety products,” shares Chris Nealon, a product manager with Moen. The company’s approach, he says, has been to double its grab bar offerings to match its most popular bath suites.

Manufacturers are offering more attractive grab bars in popular finishes, more comfort-height toilets and more upscale shower seats, all of which are helpful to Universal Design and aging-in-place projects. Some innovations popular among wider buyer segments like wall-mount toilets, motion sensor faucets and home automation products also enhance accessibility.

Cabinetry is another area where manufacturers have stepped up their game. “Wellborn’s name for aging in place/Universal Design is ACTIVE Living,” shares Angela O’Neill, Wellborn Cabinet, Inc.’s director of marketing. “We have seen this product line grow by 100%.” She attributes the growth to several factors: “Kitchen and bath industry associations have focused on design training for this need. Builders and designers have put concentrated focus on this market to better serve it.”

Another reason, she notes, is builders creating more aging-in-place communities that didn’t exist in the past, and demand from consumers and designers. Having a deep catalog also helps; every door style and finish is offered in the ACTIVE Living series, she says. Accessibility aids are also included: “We offer accessories that touch to lift, light, open and close, increasing the functionality in the kitchen.” The big new trend, she adds, is “technology to make all these accessories move. Price is the issue, though. These mechanical items can get costly.”

There are, however, an increasing number of products that address special needs becoming available at lower price points. According to Lowe’s spokesperson Matt Michaels, “The demand for well-designed bath safety is rising. People want [these products] to be stylish and functional, and to blend seamlessly into their home without looking institutional and unappealing. The perception is that these are for older people or those with limited mobility. That’s not the case. This is for the safety of everyone – all ages, sizes and abilities.”

Universal Design and, increasingly, aging in place, are included in just about every professional design and remodeling certification offered today. The National Association of Home Builders’ Certified Aging-in-Place designation is among the group’s most popular designations. “CAPS graduates include remodelers, builders, designers, architects, occupational therapists and others,” shares Stephanie Pagan, the association’s media relations manager. Interest in Universal Design is strong, according to the association, with a recent aging-in-place products tour at the 2016 International Builders’ Show selling out, and exploding participation in various aging-related award programs.

One designer who has watched – and helped – this category grow significantly in the past two decades is designer Mary Jo Peterson, CMKBD, CAPS, CLIPP. “My specialization in Universal Design offered me entry to the national arena, and I eventually worked with most of the country’s largest production builders.” She has also worked directly with architects and homeowners across all price points, and is widely respected as an author and educator.

“Interest in Universal Design has increased exponentially since I started down this path. I think a lesson to be learned here has to do with the true definition of UD, relating to better design for all clients – the older and the younger, the able-bodied and the less able-bodied – and always attractive [design].” She sees advances like connected controls for those with vision and hearing issues and linear drains for those with mobility issues to be among recent developments that show how UD can relate to the newest and best in design.

Many readers celebrated Veteran’s Day this month. Gary Sinise, the actor who played Lt. Dan in the film Forrest Gump – an Army officer who lost his legs in combat – honors real life combat-wounded vets throughout the year. His Gary Sinise Foundation began building specially adapted smart homes for severely injured veterans in 2012. “Most of the home design decisions our team makes for wounded heroes are very applicable for normal and aging civilians who wish to stay in their home for longer periods of time,” shares Scott Schaeperkoetter, director of operations for the foundation’s building program. These homes include the mobility features you’d expect – like lowered roll-under counters, barrier-free showers with benches, wide doorways and large turn radius capabilities, among others – but some you might not.

The invisible wounds of war – TBI and PTSD – create their own design and living challenges, he says. “In general, the simpler we can make the design, the easier it is for these veterans to navigate the bathroom and kitchen in their home.” For anyone suffering cognitive issues, be it TBI, dementia, Alzheimer’s, etc., simplicity in design can be beneficial.

PTSD patients have their own needs, he says. “Because of the advancements of technology, we are able to provide more independence inside of the home. We provide a standard package in each house and then customize the technology based upon the specific needs of the veteran.” These systems can be controlled by the user on an iPad, iPhone or other smart device. Home security, complete lighting control, temperature control, audio/video control and shade automation are all included. These put control over the setting and comfort right into the homeowner’s hands, creating convenience and peace of mind. And these features benefit not just vets, but other PTSD-affected groups designers may work with, such as those rebuilding after floods, hurricanes, tornadoes or fires.

Blindness is another issue affecting vets and civilians alike. With an aging U.S. population and macular degeneration one of its unfortunate side effects, the numbers are likely to increase. Neva Fairchild with the American Foundation for the Blind helps those with vision loss live independently at home. If you’re currently designing aging-in-place projects, you’re probably already incorporating some of her concepts, such as high-contrast surfaces.

You might not have considered technology, though, which she recommends: Designing products that talk would go a long way toward making products usable by people with vision loss, she comments. “The Amazon Echo is one we demonstrate here at the Center. If mainstream manufacturers would add accessibility features like Apple has on its touch screen products and Amazon has on the Echo, more people would be able to use features that people who are sighted take for granted.” These include setting the temperature on the oven, choosing how long something should cook in the microwave, checking bath water temperature and more.

You may not have a project or person in your life with pressing aging-in-place or UD needs today, but there’s a strong likelihood that at some point you will (Maybe by then, we’ll see a truly designer-friendly walk-in tub…One can hope!). Even likelier is that these principles and products will make all of your projects better and safer.

Jamie Gold, CKD, CAPS is an independent designer in San Diego, the author of New Kitchen Ideas That Work and upcoming New Bathroom Idea Book (Taunton Press), and a blogger, design journalist, seminar developer and industry consultant.

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