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.

From a Senior Citizen Point of View

Do you ever wonder what goes through the mind of a senior citizen as they deal with the rapid and unpredictable everyday life surrounding them? What is the thought process they go through, heavily influenced by the lives they lived and the times in which they lived? Each of us has our own point of view which heavily impacts how we relate to others and our environment. With 70 or 80 or more years behind them, is there a “typical” point of view for a senior citizen?

As we age and move to retirement, the life changes we will experience are to put it mildly, monumental. We cannot ignore simple realities as discussed earlier in Accepting Aging. When we retire, we abruptly exit the working world that has been the focus of our lives for 30 or 40 years or more. We are now responsible for what we will do for the rest of our lives – each day – including everything from meeting financial requirements to maintaining our health to keeping mentally engaged and ultimately enjoying being retired. A full dance card for sure. Those around us need to be aware that we are dealing with all of this for the first time with no prior experience to lean on. Any insight into what retired seniors may be going through can help.

People are like stained glass windows: they sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light within. ~ Elizabeth Kubler-Ross

A glimpse from the senior point of view

Frustration – after a lifetime of working to build a life for ourselves and our family, retirement finally arrives and we suddenly discover the ground rules have changed. Challenges to senior health lurk around each corner as time starts to take its toll on aging bodies. What used to be such a simple task to bend over to pick up a dropped magazine is now not so easy. Getting out of bed is no longer a matter of simply sitting up – instead we resort to more of a rolling motion to generate the momentum necessary to rise. Entertaining our grandchildren for the afternoon exhausts us and we are only too ready for the parents to return. And walks around the neighborhood become shorter as we may tire more easily. All of these changes take their toll and can lead to frustration in seniors who finally have the time to do what they want to do but increasingly are not physically to able to do so. The mind is willing but the body is not as able as we would like.

Loss of control – while in our prime, we were respected and our opinions valued. People would check in with us first to be sure a course of action met with our approval. Heaven help the miscreant who attempted to impose his will on OUR life without our blessing. Aging again undermines our normal lifestyle as other start making important decisions for us. Family members concerned about our ability to drive may apply pressure to give up our keys and along with that a significant piece of our independence. Everyone is concerned about what we eat and feels free to chastise a little indulgence in front of the rest of the world. And ultimately, if our mental or physical health fails to the point where we cannot safely care for ourselves, others begin discussions and plans for moving us to a retirement home. That respect and independence that we earned through our life fades as those around us make important life decisions for us – for our own good. The loss of control over our own destiny can be dispiriting at best for senior citizens.

Insecurity – the economy is in turmoil, politicians are doing nothing to help us realize a more secure future, and retirees are no longer working so are umable to add to their bottom line. A recent TIAA-CERF study found that 65% say they will not be able to retire in the manner they had hoped to, free to enjoy retired life. 80% do not even know what it takes to save! As discussed in Retirement Fears Confronted, running out of money is a real concern. With our nest egg a fragile thing, feelings and fears of an unpredictable future can weigh on our minds. At a time when we hoped to be financially secure, we often find ourselves more typically than not far from it.

Loneliness – the elderly are all too familiar with how frail life is as friends and family members become ill and pass on. What used to be a long list of friends and acquaintances begins to dwindle and increasingly we are left to our own resources to find entertainment and fulfillment in our retirement. Having a loving spouse may provide that saving anchor but the losses cannot be forgotten or replaced.  The loneliness that results can impact how we invite others into our lives. Is it worth the risk letting someone become close when ultimately we will lose them? Others need to be aware that though we may appear solid at first glance, there are highly charged emotions being dealt with just under the surface that impact our ability to cope.

Acceptance – although frustration, loss of control, insecurity and loneliness can be integral parts of elderly living, our years on earth and the many experiences we have weathered, the highs and the lows we have lived through, all come into play to make us stronger. What does not kill us makes us stronger and at our age, we realize what really matters. We have learned to smile when we do not feel like smiling. We have learned to turn the other cheek and not fight every little battle. We have learned that maintaining a spotless home is not as important as providing a safe playground for children to play. Ultimately, we have learned to accept who we are and the changes that aging entails.

Communication leads to community, that is, to understanding, intimacy and mutual valuing. ~ Rollo May

These variables are part of the chemistry that makes up senior citizens. Our attentiveness can help to understand where the elderly are coming from, to get a little into their head and see things from their perspective. Armed with this, we can hope to better communicate and perhaps commiserate. Our sensitivity may be just what they need to open up, to move beyond personal challenges, and to live the retired life they have always wanted to live.

Dealing with change and challenges is basic to the human condition.  Our attitude and point of view along the journey can give our lives value and bring happiness to those who matter most. We are all entitled to our own point of view. But a little flexibility can go a long way.

Don’t forget to pick up a free copy of my Navigating the Retirement Jungle, available upon request by mailing to lovebeingretired@hotmail.com.

Retirement Finale – No Regrets

We all live our lives in the best way we know. Everyone wants to be happy. Inside, each of us has a vision of what makes up a “good life” and we hopefully have some concept of what it takes to live it. How we actually live may be a far cry from what makes us happy. Look at those who work incredible hours each day to save and build a nest egg that they believe they need to be happy, safe, and satisfied. No time for their family, no time for their other interests, no time for themselves. Are they happy? What about the neighbor who always seems to be angry, complaining about every little thing and generally a thorn in the side of everyone else on the block. Living a happy life – I would not think so. And on the corner, in the BIG house, with the fancy cars and designer dogs, rarely stooping to the level of others in the area, alone except for his money and things, is Mr. Rich a happy camper?

Sometimes it turns out that our chosen life path is not really the best road to travel. And when we get to the end of our journey, when it is time to say goodbye, will we have regrets?

In Regrets of the Dying” , Papa Rich Wee shares some thoughts he has gathered while dealing with patients who have gone home to die, those in the last three to twelve weeks of their lives. A wonderful and eye-opening article, he questions them to see if they have regrets and if there is anything they would do differently in their life. Here are the five main points he shares:

1.    I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2.    I wish I didn’t work so hard.

3.    I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

4.    I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

5.    I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Pretty powerful. Like they always say, no one complains of having spent too little time at the office. No one is complaining of not having enough stuff.

We visited the idea of doing what you want to do, what is true to yourself, regardless of what others think you should be doing, but it is good to emphasize since not doing this was the number one regret expressed above. If during your lifetime you work at something that you are passionate about, that you love to do, then you are being true to yourself. If you are stuck in a bad situation with no other options because you need the money, you cannot hope to live a life true to yourself. I know that in a down economy, the choices are slim. But when things get back on track, why not take a look at other options more in line with what you would like to be doing. Follow your inspiration to live a more complete and satisfying life. You owe it to yourself.

Listen, are you breathing just a little and calling it a life? ~ Mary Oliver

I took a moment to think back on my life to contemplate any regrets and see what I might have done differently. Rather than simply run chronologically through Dave’s Days, I thought of questions I could ask that would better frame my experiences and actions to identify now what I might regret later. Asking the hard questions, the right questions to get to the true answers:

1.    Have I along my life’s journey intentionally hurt anyone?

2.    Have I sacrificed my family and their happiness in pursuit of material things?

3.    Have I ignored cries of help from people along the way?

4.    Have I been more focused on myself than on those around me?

5.    Have I neglected friendships?

6.    Have I done the bare minimum in a situation where more effort would have yielded better results?

7.    Have I neglected to tell those I love that I love them, repeatedly, on every possible occasion?

I invite you to ask yourself these questions and take the time to really dig for the answers. If you gain a deeper insight into your life and the person you are today, so much the better. At the very least, you may be able to identify areas where you would like to make changes in your life. Today you have time to make those changes. So when it is all said and done, your regrets are few and your satisfaction at having lived a good life is your legacy.

Don’t forget to pick up a free copy of my Navigating the Retirement Jungle, available upon request by mailing to lovebeingretired@hotmail.com.