Designing for an Ageing Population

Kohler bathroom for aging in place
Kohler bathroom for ageing in place

I’m not sure if I have ever mentioned this on the blog before, but until about a year ago I used to volunteer for Age UK. When I first moved to Bristol I decided that it was about time I did some charity work. I was a little apprehensive as I didn’t really fancy shaking a bucket on a street corner and harassing innocent shoppers. I was very lucky though and just at that moment Age UK were advertising for volunteers to help write their regular newsletters. Obviously that was right up my street and I did it for two years until I moved back to Devon when it was no longer practical as I couldn’t attend all the events I used to cover for them.

Anyway, working with Age UK was a real eye opener and it made me view the world from a very different perspective, one that I have to say made me feel quite sad (and actually cry) at times. Getting older can be a very lonely time and things that used to be so easy suddenly become a real struggle, even in your own home. This got me thinking about how we can ensure that our homes are still suitable for us as we age. I mean given the choice most people wouldn’t want to move into a residential home, but sometimes they have no choice as their homes actually present a whole host of risks. But modifying or remodelling your home surely doesn’t have to leave you feeling like you now live in a hospital facility does it?

Universal Design Room at Kohler Design Center
Universal Design Room at Kohler Design Center

I decided to look into this and find out more about it. I wanted to know how we can “future proof” our homes to make them more suitable for when we get older. As soon as I did a bit of research I realised that most of the conversation of this nature seemed to be taking place across the pond in the US. ‘Ageing in Place’ as it is called over there seems to be a pretty hot topic right now and something that the interior design industry is taking very seriously. And they don’t really have much choice. I read over on the web page of the American Society of Interior Designers that according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the elderly population will more than double between now and 2050, to 80 million. That means roughly one in five adults in the U.S. will be over the age of 65.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but it doesn’t appear that the issue is viewed with quite the same magnitude here in the UK. And I’m not entirely sure why that is as we are faced with the same demographic issues. According to the Design Council there are already 130 million people over 50 in the European Union. By 2020, one in every two European adults will be over that age. Catering to the needs of this burgeoning demographic group is not only socially desirable but surely it presents a great commercial opportunity for the interiors industry.

Universal Design Room by Cynthia Leibrock at Kohler Design Centre
Universal Design Room by Cynthia Leibrock at Kohler Design Centre

Now I’m obviously not an expert in ageing in place or inclusive or universal design as it is often referred to here in the UK. But I have been following an ageing in place specialist on Twitter for quite some time now. Alesha E. Churba, is a Certified Ageing in Place Specialist, and also the owner of A.E.Churba Design, LLC. She speaks on the topic of ageing in place and design for the future and she also writes her own blog called Design with the Future in Mind.

A.E.Churba- Alesha E. Churba
Ageing in Place specialist Alesha E. Churba

I thought it would be interesting to ask Alesha some questions on the subject with a view to starting a bit of a debate here on the blog. I would really like to hear the thoughts and views of any interior designers from both the US and the UK on the current situation with regards to ageing in place and inclusive or universal design and the state of the market for our ageing population.

What is ageing in place exactly?

AEC. To me, ageing in place means making the home as comfortable  and as safe as possible and as easy to care for those living there as possible. It is about making the space fit the person or people living there. Yes, it could mean grab bars and raised, elongated toilets but really, it is about the whole home and making it better for all of the occupants.

What does your job as an ageing in place specialist entail exactly?

AEC. My job as an ageing in place specialist is primarily about safety for the homes’ occupants. It is my job to not only understand accessibility, but also to get to know the occupants and how they live. I look at what can be done to help the people living in the home to be safer and what I can do to make it easier for them to live there. It also sometimes includes empathy and knowledge of human development. Seniors are usually very proud people and are often stuck in their ways of doing things. It is my job to help them understand their options and the different possibilities that are available to them. It is about listening, observing, and working within the comfort zone of the person you are trying to help.

Elevance BubbleMassage rising wall bath by Kohler
Taps for the Elevance BubbleMassage rising wall bath by Kohler

At what age should we start thinking about modifying our homes to make them more user friendly as we age?

AEC. My theory is that any time you make any type of home improvement, ageing in place strategies should be incorporated and planned for because it is all about safety, comfort and low maintenance and I do not think there are many people who wouldn’t benefit from including these ideas in their homes. For instance, as a young parent with little ones, it is so much easier to clean up a low maintenance type of flooring or having fin-style faucets if you are holding a baby in your arms and need some water. Raised toilets with elongated bowls are so much easier to use no matter what age. Things like that are useful for any age, not just seniors.

Persuade Curv Comfort Height Toilet by Kohler
Persuade Curv Comfort Height Toilet by Kohler

What are the main risks that our homes present the older we get and what can we do to minimize these risks?

AEC. Unbelievably, the risks in the home as we age are often resolved with common sense ideas. An example would be throw rugs in the home. They are very dangerous because they are a slip and trip hazard. Falling is one of the worst threats to a senior because of broken bones and loss of mobility. Additionally, things like adequate lighting and placing things within the reaching range are very important. Eyesight generally diminishes as we age, as does flexibility. I know I do not want my parents climbing on stepladders to get to a dish high on a shelf. Even placing the microwave on the counter rather than above the range is a much safer option. Getting into the mindset and reality of living in an older body is crucial to understanding the needs of a senior. Spend a couple days with a senior and watch what they go through and you will get a better understanding of what needs to be done.

Elevance BubbleMassage rising wall bath by Kohler
Elevance BubbleMassage rising wall bath by Kohler

To what extent does the interiors market cater to the needs of our ageing population? Are there many products that are aimed at this demographic?

AEC. Luckily, there are more and more products aimed at seniors and our ageing population. I think the baby boomers in America are responsible for this happening. I wish there were more though and I wish it was not just a specialty type of thing. So many seniors (those older than the American Baby Boomers) are living with dangerous homes and environments that are not the safest for them because they cannot afford to make changes and often they do not know what changes to make. I think, too, the market is still about the ooh and ahh factor and while that is great, a sensibility needs to be addressed.

Universal Design Kitchen by Kraftmaid - Cutting Board
Universal Design Kitchen by Kraftmaid – Cutting Board

Many of the products aimed at seniors and those ageing in place are related to grab bars and walk-in tubs, etc., because that is where many falls and injuries occur. Some companies, like Kraftmaid, make a product that works well for seniors such as the Passport Series, but there is a stigma of “handicap accessible” often given to these products too.

Universal Design Kitchen by Kraftmaid
Universal Design Kitchen by Kraftmaid

Products geared to seniors are generally easy to use and intuitive though. Companies like Adapt My and Great Grabz have wonderful, stylish products that work well for ageing in place. Even companies like Armstrong have wonderful choices that make life easier and safer for seniors. Kohler company has some useful articles and videos that help with ageing in place choices and Best-Bath has great bathroom solutions too.

Belay hand rail by Kohler
Belay hand rail by Kohler

Can a home that has been remodelled or modified for ageing in place be stylish as well as practical?

AEC. Absolutely! One of the benefits of making a home ageing in place friendly is that it is easy to maintain! There is no reason a home can’t be stylish in addition to being ageing in place friendly. Accommodations for ageing are beneficial for everyone and it is all in the choices made. An ageing in place home should be comfortable and not feel institutional. No one wants to feel like they live in an institution.

Universal Design Kitchen by Kraftmaid - Sink and Elevated Dishwasher
Universal Design Kitchen by Kraftmaid – Sink and Elevated Dishwasher

Thank you for answering my questions Alesha. Now it’s over to you guys, I would love to hear about your experiences with ageing in place if you have any. What products, if any, have you used in your projects? When should we start thinking about preparing our homes for the inevitability of old age? How can we ensure that modifications don’t leave our homes feeling like a hospital? Should developers and house builders be integrating the principles of inclusive and universal design into their projects? Please leave me a comment and let’s get the conversation started!

If you need some inspiration, then here are a couple of short videos by Kohler looking at universal design in the kitchen and the bathroom. It just goes to show that accessible design solutions don’t have to look like something out of a residential home.

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  • Excellent. Unfortunately US builders do not recognize the added value of home and bath design for real lifetimes. Long before aging, expensive retro home modifications may be needed to adapt to physical disability. Common sense design for such realities of life in new residential construction can add significant value to the home.

    • Hi Mike, thanks for your insightful comment. Hopefully, that will be changing soon. I was at a conference run by the US National Kitchen and Bathroom Association earlier this year and Aging in Place was one of the big trends that they talked about.

  • Great article! Over in New Zealand, Lifemark are working hard to ensure new homes are designed with our ageing and changing population in mind. We work with architects, builders and developers to create more easy to use and safe homes for all occupants.

  • Like this. I have been plugging away at hotels to make them recognise that the affluent market for stays is the over 50’s not youngsters. Inclusive design also benefits those with less physical ability and the more integrated it is the more successful it becomes.

  • I agree with Helen. Design for elderly people doesn’t have to be ugly depressing. We just need to think about all those small details that would make their life so much easier. There is a real gap in that area. It’s not much you can read and learn, you need to discover it all yourself. Thanks for the article.

    • I was surprised by how little discussion there seems to be on the issue, hence the blog post. However, like Alesha says, a lot of the modifications we should make are great for other family members too. Why is this not higher up the agenda? Is it because the topic is not sexy and people don’t want to think about ageing?

  • Well done for highlighting a much neglected area of design. You are so right to point out that design for older people doesn’t have to resemble a hospital facility. People don’t lose their appreciation for good design as they get older.

    • I totally agree Helen. I just don’t understand why there isn’t more great design out there for our ageing population. It’s a mystery to me!

  • Great that you have shared it! These info will be an eye opener for many who are looking forward in converting existing rooms. I decided in enabling anyone to feel confidently independent in and around the home, particularly in the bathroom:)