Universal Design Supports Independent Senior Living

The first of earthly blessings, independence ~ Edward Gibbon

Have you ever had to walk stairs that seem just a bit too high for your stride? Or strained on your tip toes in efforts to reach something high on a shelf? How about fumbling with a slick door knob just trying to get into your own room? Now imagine you are a 75-year-old senior citizen, significantly less sprightly than when you were young, a bit frail, occasionally off-balance, attempting to do these same things. Not only can it be challenging, it can be downright dangerous as one false step, a sudden fall, and a life-impacting injury can occur.

Most elderly would prefer to “age in place”, continuing their senior life in familiar surroundings within a familiar neighborhood. An AARP study found that 89 percent of Americans want to stay where they are living for as long as possible and for those 75+, the number rises to 95 percent. However, to do so safely require the right environment to support the typical needs brought on by old age, specifically within the home, but also the surrounding neighborhood. Universal Design is one way to fit the bill, defined by Wikipedia as broad-spectrum architectural planning ideas meant to produce buildings, products and environments that are inherently accessible to both the able-bodied and the physically disabled.”

Universal design came about after World War II to address returning veterans and the disabled. Today, it has been expanded to address the requirements of senior living. Properly implemented, universal design can make a big difference in facilitating independent retirement living.

Checklist – where you can make a difference

Kitchen – AARP indicates that the kitchen is the single place where universal design can have the most impact. Counter tops should be at an easily accessible height. Side by side refrigerators are easier to negotiate than those with freezers either above or below. Storage should allow easy access to contents via pull out drawers or lazy-Susan-type devices. Faucets are easiest to control with a single lever instead of multiple knobs for hot and cold.

Bathroom – an improperly prepared bathroom can be a dangerous place with the ever-present threat of slipping and falling. Some areas to focus on include: non-slip strips and floors on showers and tubs is a must; toilets that are at a comfortable height; support bars in the bath and shower as an added safety measure; bath tubs can now be had with doors to enter them instead of having to climb down into the tub; showers that are flush to the floor, with no edge to step over are finding their way into homes.

General – AgingInPlace.com lists five tips for universal design including adapting the main floor for one level living and widening doorways to 36 inches with offset hinges. Some other general areas to improve include: bright lighting throughout the home to clearly illuminate rooms; levers for door handles instead of knobs; non-slip strips on the edge of stairs inside and out; light switches with the large flat panel instead of the old flip switch; electrical outlets that are higher from the floor for easier access; there are lamps that you can turn on and off simply by touching the lamp itself, removing the hassle of locating and turning the sometimes hard to find switch; smooth ground-level entrances without stairs.

Neighborhood considerations – is the neighborhood easy to navigate for a senior citizen? How much of a journey is it to the local grocery store, restaurants, community center, and fitness spa? Having these important places within walking distance – and not over steep hills or along dangerous boulevards – is an essential part to living independently in a community. How thorough is public transit in the area to get seniors to those destinations beyond the range of their walking?  Are there benches and areas to rest along the way?

The little things become increasing challenging as we age but that does not mean we are out of the game. There are adjustments that can be made to improve the quality of our retired lives. Attention to the details inside the home can support senior independent living. Knowing the layout of the neighborhood and taking advantage of available resources to get around helps to maintain independent living. We all want to remain independent for as long as possible. Universal design considerations can make it possible a little longer.