Principles of Universal Design Facilitate Aging-In-Place

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I can recall as a young boy my fascination with “automatic doors.” Stepping on those floor mats was the solution to taking my dad places in his wheelchair…I could keep pushing him, as doors ‘magically’ opened for us. I didn’t know the term Universal Design, yet I lived it. The concept is elegantly simple: creating environments and products usable by all people to the greatest extent possible, without need for adaptation or specialization. Its intent: to enhance the quality of life for all, regardless of age or ability. When I was six years old, I got a Universal Design education, firsthand. I am the product of early adoption of the concept. My dad was a 100% disabled WWII veteran and our home was designed for accessibility by the Dallas architect, Joe Gordon, in 1952. Our house was small in square footage, but seemed very open and was easy to live in by all of my family, including my father.

A bridge from the curbs that enters the main living level, in this case the second floor of this modern home, offers universal accessibility into the living and entertainment areas

The elegance of universal design resides in it being invisible and non-stigmatizing, which wasn’t always the case in institutional design. The design should be so intuitive that the interface with it is effortless. So, the next time you walk through an automatic door think “universal design at work.”

The challenges in our built environments are manmade—the design sets up the “handicap” that comes from having to deal with obstacles the design creates, when there is no consideration for universality.

7 Principles of Universal Design

Equitable Use – The design does not disadvantage or stigmatize any group of users and is marketable to people with diverse abilities.

Flexibility in Use – The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences (i.e., L/R handed) and abilities; provides choice in methods of use.

The main living and outdoor entertaining is designed to take place all on one level in this ranch home in Bosque County

Simple and Intuitive Use – Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, visual acuity, muscle strength, or current concentration level. Good universal design emphasizes simplicity.

Perceptible Information – The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities. It uses pictures, audible, or tactile methods.

Hard surface flooring and wide doors facilitate maneuvering the rooms of this modern home, designed for aging-in-place

Tolerance for Error – The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences from accidents or unintended fatigue. Elements most often used in the home should be the most accessible, or incorporate fail-safe features.

Low Physical Effort – The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.

Appropriate Size and Space – The appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use, regardless of the user’s body size, posture, or mobility level.

Challenges for the Aging Population that Can be Solved by Universal Design

The concepts of Aging-in-Place and Universal Design are linked together. A home with Universal Design features is set up for the spectrum of life and is an environment which will accommodate all of its stages.

The challenges of aging fall into these broad categories: functional decline, complications from disease and medications, and the need to accommodate in-home caregivers. The list below includes some, but not all, of the design considerations for Aging-in-Place. For a complete program that accommodates your individual needs it is best to consult with a professional familiar with Universal Design, when undertaking the construction of a new home.

*Adapt main floor of the home for one level living: no-step entry; bathroom, bedroom, kitchen and laundry on main floor; no curbs at shower entry.

*Install hand-held shower heads and grab bars. These are some of the least expensive changes you can make and are a great help to those with balance problems.

*Use lever handles on doors and plumbing fixtures. Hand strength can be an issue with all ages–using a simple lever eliminates the struggle with operating doorknobs and faucets.

Removing the reducer strips between the various floor materials in this Texas Regional home creates ease in moving from room-to-room

*Use “comfort height” toilets, countertops, light switches, thermostats: many people suffer from osteoporosis, arthritis, or temporary injuries and find it hard to stand up from a normal height toilet; lowered countertops and switches allow for operation from a wheelchair or a sitting position.

*36″ wide doors throughout the home. Doorways are often too narrow for walkers and wheelchairs, or someone carrying packages. Widening all of them is a plus for all ages and activities.

*Make room for knee space below countertops, work spaces, and sinks.

Curbless roll-in showers, and sometimes a “shlub,” tub within a shower, offer flex bathing solutions for people and pets

*Instead of defining each space for a specific use, prepare the space for flexible use and multiple routines. Something simple, like a built-in seat in the shower, illustrates this principle. Some clients want the controls to the left and others want them on the right. What if they need to bathe the dog in the shower? Options that call for a space that is less defined, into which one can stand, lean, place, or remove a chair, offer maximum flexibility. A built-in shower seat defines how the space is used. But, an open shower allows the space to be less-defined, offering more maneuvering, alternative uses, and varied routines. Two can use the space simultaneously, whether for a shared shower or by a client and caregiver. Prepare for the unknown by maximizing the ways rooms and spaces can be used in multiple ways.

*Lighting/Daylighting (maximum use of direct and reflected light, supplementing conventional lighting): use windows, transoms, clerestories, and skylights to allow direct and reflected light into a home, which enhances mood and learning, mitigating the effects of reduced visual acuity while at the same time reducing energy usage.

*Temperature. Many older adults do not have good circulation and require more warmth in their homes. Better insulation and designing for increased solar heating in the winter reduces the need for high energy usage.

*Non-slip floor materials: tiles with textured surfaces and low-pile carpets.

*Level floors without reducer strips where there is a change in floor materials.

*Ramps and rails

*Computerized ubiquitous monitoring systems, as well as other assistive devices.

Aging-in-Place Neighborhoods.

Look for these features when seeking a location for your home: town centers and shops within walking distance; housing of different types to accommodate families of varying sizes/circumstances; multi-generational; porches on homes; narrow pedestrian-friendly streets; proximity to transit/bus lines; mix-use (commerce and residential)

The rehabilitation community calls for a paradigm shift in which “disability” is a function of interaction between the environment and the user rather than a condition of the user alone. Good, functional and easy interaction has and always will be a standard of good design. If you are designing for people, Aging-in-Place design is already a part of what you do. It’s just another aspect of the program for good design.

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