Bakersfield Magazine: Aging In Place

image description image description image description image description

Aging is an inevitable part of life and to most adults the thought of moving to a nursing home or a senior care facility can be frightening. With the fast increase in the aging population, senior care facilities have started to adopt and implement models that are based on the latest in design research findings. Whether the decision is to move to a facility or to stay at one’s own home, the goal is to promote a safe and independent lifestyle.
What are the main challenges of older adults? As we age we are prone to chronic diseases like arthritis, vision and hearing impairements, hypertension, alzheimer, dementia, and incontinence. This results in a less active lifestyle, loss of independence, depression, agitation, isolation, fear of social embarrassment, and emotional distress. Older adults’ worst fear is falling and by following the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) guidelines we can solve the physical accessibility challenges, but not the cognitive challenges that result from a stroke or brain-related diseases. An accessible space should not be confused with a Universal space. “Universal design is the design of products, environments, and communication to be used by all people to the greatest extent possible, without adaptation or specialized design.”(1)

How can we improve our living spaces?
The following tips are general guidelines that can be further customized to the individual needs:

-Remove all floor mats and area rugs as they present a tripping hazard.
-Install pulls, faucets and other operable devices that are maneuverable with the wrist.
-Create a way-finding system; visual cues such as a large artwork or another distinctive feature that they can mark to find the door to their bedroom, bathroom, and so on.
-Paint the doors that you need to keep people out of in the same color as the walls, as to deter attention from them.
-Add phones in multiple easy to reach locations.
-Avoid the use of large patterns on floors. When an older adult see a big pattern, he/ she thinks it is a hole in the floor and tries to step over it which put them at a risk of falling.
Avoid shiny surfaces as they cause glare and confusion.
-Use materials that help reduce noise levels.
-Create a contrast between horizontal and vertical planes such as on walls and floors; older adults have hard time distinguishing where the wall meets the floor thus creating confusion.

-Increase the light levels in a room. The lens of the eye thickens and turns to a yellow tint with age which alters the color perception. Older adults have hard time distinguishing between blue and purple, and yellow and green.
-Use indirect light by placing the light source inside ceiling and wall coves. The aging eyes are sensitive to glare.
-Have the light switches on dimmers and maintain an even light level throughout the rooms. The aging eye cannot adjust easily to the sudden change in light levels.

-Lower the kitchen counters to 34” and configure the lower cabinets to have pull-out drawers. Make sure appliances and upper cabinets are easily reached.
-Replace the refrigerator with one to have compartments with pull out drawers. A large refrigerator can be overwhelming to the older adult.
-Re-organize the pantry and label containers in large letters or color coding so that it is easy to find items.

-Install non-slip floor covering.
-Adjust toilet height to make it accessible by the user.
-Install a roll-in shower with a transfer seat, and a walk-in tub.
-Add grab bars throughout the bathroom at key locations.
-Adjust height of towel bars and place them in close proximity so they are easy to find.
-Increase door openings from 32” to 36” for easy wheelchair accessibility.
-If the swing of the door gets in the way of access, replace it with a barn door that is easy to slide.

Living spaces:
-Remove all clutter, tables and other items that can prevent ease of mobility and cause confusion. Maintain one type of floor covering throughout.
-Chairs should have arms and should not allow the body to sink in and cause strain on the knees while sitting down and getting up.

Sleeping spaces:
-Adjust the bed height and keep the light control in a reachable spot.
-Install a red or amber nightlight in the room. Falls occur on the way back from the bathroom to the bedroom at night, when blackout happens after lights are turned off. The aging eye cannot adjust to the sudden change in light levels. Red or amber lights help maintain good sleep patterns and prevent the Circadian System from being interrupted.
-Understanding the user of a space is the key to any successful design. Older adults are sensitive and can easily be hurt emotionally. That said, when we implement the changes listed above it is important that the space is designed without becoming institutional or suggestive of a “person with special needs”. It is very rewarding to know that we have made a difference in someone’s life by altering their living environment.
Pallat, B. “Liberty, Justice and Design-For-All: Designing for Cognitive Disabilities.” Interiors &Sources, VOL. 11, no. 4 (April 2004): 71-73