Most homes are built for the needs and preferences of active adults. Often they are unsuitable, even dangerous, for a person with diminished capacity or limited mobility or for a person needing care and for the caregiver. Without requiring extensive modifications, in most cases, thoughtful design can transform these spaces into supportive environments that optimize independence and control for the occupants while ensuring safety and promoting an overall sense of well being. These changes also make it easier and safer for a caregiver to tend to an individual.

What is Universal Design?

One approach to creating more supportive environments is Universal Design. Also known as inclusive design, barrier-free design, design-for-all and lifespan design, this method broadly refers to the concept that ideally all design (products, technologies and configurations of the built environment) should serve the broadest range of people, regardless of their individual levels of ability or mobility, age, gender or physical stature without the need for adaptations. It is not a design style but rather an orientation to design, focusing on the end-user. Universal Design incorporates such elements as stepless entryways, wider doorways, lever-style handles on doors and faucets, multi-level or adjustable task areas, grab bars in bath areas, easy-access drawers and storage, and other features that improve ease and comfort as well as accessibility. These enhancements benefit people of all ages and abilities, and they help to reduce falls, injuries and accidents.

Why Choose Universal Design?

When contemplating modifications to a home, it is important to consider all the ways that the interior environment can affect the occupants. Consider not only their physical well being but also their emotional well being. It is important to plan for future needs with a thorough home safety assessment. Will the current home continue to support the residents five years or ten years from now, or possibly longer?

No one wants to be a prisoner in his or her own home. Yet, surprisingly few homes are designed to ensure physical independence into old age. If your home has stairs, would you be able to access a full bathroom if you could no longer go up and down those stairs on your own? Where would you sleep? Could you get to the kitchen or use the toilet if you were injured or had to use a wheelchair? If you needed to sit while taking a shower, could you still reach the controls and adjust the showerhead?

Adequate Lighting is Crucial

As we get older, our vision changes. Our visual field narrows and yellowing of the lens makes it more difficult to differentiate between colors and adjust to changes in brightness. Having proper lighting throughout the home becomes more important. Task areas, such as kitchen counters, hobby tables and desks, should have additional, focused overhead lighting or lamps. Blinds, shades and window treatments should be adjustable to allow ample natural lighting. Entryways, hallways, steps and closets all need to be clearly lit when in use. Sensors or timers are ideal for these areas. Rocker switches with dimmers make it easy to control lighting and reduce glare. Seniors with low vision can find other independent living aids at low cost as well.

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Make Adjustments to Breathe Easy

Indoor air quality is another concern. Carbon monoxide and radon are two invisible, odorless gasses that can build up in some homes, causing sickness and even death. Installing a carbon monoxide detector and testing your home for radon can ensure prolonged health and safety. For people with allergies, COPD or difficulty breathing, mold, dust, household chemicals and even humidity can create problems. Make sure heating and air conditioning units are properly serviced, and use HEPA filters and a dehumidifier to control molds and other allergens. Some building materials also can be hazardous, such as plywood containing formaldehyde or carpets that emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are respiratory irritants and neurotoxins.

Minor Adjustments, Major Results

Seniors tend to spend more time in their homes, yet unfortunately, they often fail to make necessary changes to make it more comfortable and functional as their needs change. Something as simple as changing the color of paint on the walls can make a significant difference in our attitude and sense of well being. Rearranging furniture to make it easier and safer to move about is another small change that can make a big difference. This is especially true for those who are losing their vision. An "emotionally healthy" home promotes activity and is inviting to family, friends and neighbors. Create areas where people can comfortably gather together and interact, without distractions from televisions or radios. Fabrics and soft furnishings that reduce noise levels can make conversations easier to follow. Illuminating walls with sconces or recessed bulbs adds light without increasing glare and creates a more appealing ambience.

Ensuring Accessibility

The home needs to be accessible to visitors as well as to occupants. With just a few basic changes, a home becomes inviting to all. Make sure there is at least one no-step entrance to your home. All doors and hallways (at least on the main floor) should be wide enough to be easily navigated by a wheelchair user or someone needing assistance. There should be a bathroom on the main floor that is big enough for someone in a wheelchair to enter and still be able to close the door. These changes can help ensure that all your guests will be welcome for as long as you live in your home.

A caring home has many components, but creating a safe, functional and comfortable environment need not be costly or difficult. Most of the modifications discussed above can be done yourself or require a minimal amount of assistance. For larger changes, a qualified interior designer with expertise in Universal Design or aging in place can help you decide what is best for you and your home. The benefits to your health and quality of life are considerable, and you will be able to enjoy your home for many years to come.

Adapted from Healing Homes: Design to Promote Recovery and Well Being, forthcoming from the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID). ASID is the leading professional organization for interior design, with more than 38,000 members nationwide.