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The principles of universal design involve making a home easier to live in and can allow older adults to live independently longer.
Not thrilled with the prospect of moving during their older years, baby boomers Lew and Ellen added universal design features to their Charlotte, North Carolina dream house. When relocating to Virginia, middle-agers Dean and Betsy bought a life-span-design home because it felt comfortable and homey. And New Yorker Rosemary made simple modifications to her mother's home, enabling her mother to live independently for an additional 8 years.
"We're planning ahead for our empty nest and retirement years," says Ellen. "But a lot of the decisions were made for aesthetic reasons."
Unobtrusive, attractive, and practical, universal design creates environments with minimal hazards that people of all ages and abilities will find useful. Many elements decrease the need for bending, lifting, or reaching, but the term also applies to consumer products designed for simplicity and convenience.
Universal design is meant to blend in with the home, not stand out. The features are part of the design, so they are attractive and useful. A casual observer may not even notice the features are present.
Advancing age and conditions such as arthritis can make getting around, opening doors, and stepping into the tub more difficult. Not surprisingly, studies show that most middle-age or older adults want to continue living in their own homes for as long as possible. Universal design features can help make that possible.
Some universal concepts, such as step-less entries and wider halls and doorways, entail more effort and are sometimes only possible during the building of a new home or the remodeling of an existing one.
Some examples of home modification include:
The best time to introduce universal features to an existing home is when you are renovating for another reason. If you are in this situation, consider the following suggestions:
The experts say that little things count, too. For example, reorganize cupboards to store frequently accessed items between waist and shoulder height.
Inexpensive and easily implemented modifications and assistive devices can dramatically improve an older person's well-being even when large-scale renovations are not possible. A controlled trial found that frail older adults who used assistive devices experienced less functional decline and pain and needed less health care assistance than did similar functioning elders without devices.
Here are some minor things people can do in an effort to stay independent:
There are tens of thousands of other assistive devices available that will help make life easier and safer.
Minor changes can have a major impact on quality of life.
Assistive devices and home modifications help people to age gracefully and with dignity, because they enable them to do more for themselves. By incorporating universal design when planning renovations or building new homes, older adults can enjoy the best of all worlds: convenience, aesthetics, and peace of mind.
Center for Assistive Technology—State University of New York at Buffalo
Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access—State University of New York at Buffalo
Canadian Healthcare Network
Government of Canada
Fact sheet: Home modifications to promote independent living. American Association of Retired Persons website. Available at: https://assets.aarp.org/rgcenter/ppi/liv-com/fs168-home-modifications.pdf. Accessed June 8, 2017.
Falls in the elderly. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T115430/Falls-in-the-elderly. Updated February 10, 2017. Accessed June 8, 2017.
Universal design. Institute for Human Centered Disign website. Available at: http://www.humancentereddesign.org/universal-design. Accessed June 8, 2017.
Universal design. PBS website. Available at: http://www.pbs.org/hometime/house/udesign.htm. Accessed June 8, 2017.
Wilson DJ, Mitchell JM, Kemp BJ, Adkins RH, Mann W. Effects of assistive technology on functional decline in people aging with a disability. Assist Technol. 2009;21(4):208-217.
Last reviewed June 2017 by Michael Woods, MD, FAAP Last Updated: 6/8/2017