Ask most kids and they’ll tell you they can’t wait to be older so they can do more. Ask their parents or grandparents and the word “older” is rarely mentioned. Yet, these Boomers and seniors are doing so much more than they ever dreamed at this stage in their lives . They’re completing marathons, triathlons, mountaineering expeditions, adventure travel, endurance challenges and obstacle course races in exploding numbers.
Along with all of those youthful pursuits come sports injuries, muscle stiffness and a parallel explosion in knee and hip replacements. So while they may be squeamish about discussing “aging-in-place” – with its dreaded “a” word – homeowners in the 50-plus demographic are increasingly interested in the benefits of accessibility. That last mile or fire jump may get the credit. Or it could be their arthritis, activated by overuse. But every survey points to this trend and both designers and manufacturers are paying attention.
In the 2015 Kitchen and Bath Style Report, the National Kitchen and Bath Association reported that 57 percent of NKBA designers specified accessible and/or Universal Design features in bathrooms and 56 percent incorporated them into kitchens the prior year.
That doesn’t mean clients like talking about it. Designers have shared in networking groups that many homeowners are still uncomfortable contemplating their aging needs and even “Universal Design” can conjure up images of wheelchairs and institutional fixtures. Some designers have changed the discussion to “inclusive design,” “accessible design” or a new term discussed at a recent seminar dubbed “athlete-in-place design.”
“A majority of respondents anticipate adding features such as shower benches, comfort-height toilets and vanities in baths; and microwave drawers and touch-activated or touch-less kitchen faucets,” the NKBA survey shared, adding that “the demand for easy maintenance spaces and products is also growing.” These features benefit the able-bodied weekend warrior and time-pressed, sandwich-generation Boomer balancing her needs with those of her teens and aging parents as much as they help the traditional aging-in-place client.
A 2014 Home Design Trends Survey from the American Institute of Architects points to a strongly-increased interest in ramps or elevators, on-grade entries, fitness rooms and homes that can accommodate multiple generations. The aging-in-place conversation you have with your next client may focus on their in-laws, rather than themselves. These all aid the homeowner transitioning into retirement and wanting to remain at home, rather than moving into a senior living facility. Studies consistently show that the vast majority of older adults prefer this option.
The fitness room trend is one that kitchen and bath designers are well poised to tap into. Knowledge of ergonomics and clearances supports design of spaces with large, heavily used equipment and storage, flooring and lighting planning to surround it. Cabinet dealers can propose solutions to store a homeowner’s gear and house a television for use while working out. Even the inclusion of large mirrors lends itself to the designer who has been creating successful bath projects for years; some of these fitness rooms will even be part of luxurious master suites, so they can take advantage of adjacent showers and fixtures. As steam showers were showing a trend increase in the NKBA survey, that’s definitely a discussion point for the shower component of a fitness suite.
Age-defying clients who participate in athletics may also be more receptive to the safety conversation of aging-in-place than the average age-denying homeowner. After all, to successfully complete their events, they need to remain safe and uninjured. That mindset is easily transferred to a home space with its accessible add-ons that accommodate this need. According to a Research Institute for Housing America Special Report, 80 percent of Americans in the 55 and older demographic were homeowners and only 31 percent of them have special safety features at home. That presents a tremendous opportunity for manufacturers creating products to meet these growing needs as the population ages and designers seeking the most stylish ways to include them in their projects.
As reported from the recent Design & Construction Week, Kohler, Moen and TOTO were all showing off safety and accessible features with their new lines. This makes it easier for designers who want to create master suites that evoke resort spas, rather than rehab hospital rooms. Brands like Great Grabz, Rohl and Jaclo also serve this need with upscale offerings you wouldn’t hesitate to specify for a luxury project.
The growing availability and popularity of sophisticated cabinetry accessories also aids accessibility. For example, homeowners no longer have to get on their aging knees with a flashlight to find something in the back of a corner cabinet, or bend stiff backs to get into the lower shelf of a pantry. A deep roll-out tray or swing-out unit will make that a problem of the past. These are also profitable up-sells for the designer and cabinet dealer.
Induction cooktops also assist the older homeowner in multiple ways. First, it’s easier to clean than a pro-style gas cooktop, and this can help the client with arthritis, fatigue or vision impairment, as well as the runner wanting to spend his time doing speed drills, not scrubbing burner grates. Second, it doesn’t convey heat when there isn’t a pot or pan sitting on it, so a memory-challenged user who forgets to turn it off will less likely cause a problem. (Humidity-sensing vent fans in the bathroom also help with memory issues.) Third, induction makes it faster to get dinner on the table and every schedule juggler values that convenience.
Convection-steam ovens can also help in this regard, and offer a much healthier cooking option for the busy, athlete-at-home client. They, too, showed up as a growing trend in the NKBA report.
By changing the conversation from aging to accessibility or athleticism, you empower your clients to feel comfortable with the best features available for their lives and homes. You can also enhance your profitability with revenue-rich products and new project ideas like elevators and fitness rooms. Consider partnering with specialists in these areas for best results, as you would with a technology consultant for home automation and entertainment.
Jamie Gold, CKD, CAPS is an independent designer in San Diego, the author of New Kitchen Ideas That Work (Taunton Press), and a blogger, design journalist, seminar developer and industry consultant. She is also a Boomer who participates in obstacle course races, triathlons, endurance events and other weekend warrior past-times.