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Universal Design for Aging in Place

June 1, 2002
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Interview with Mary Jo Peterson
Interview with Mary Jo Peterson, President, Mary Jo Peterson Design Consultants
"The old is new." That paradox has been often stated by devotees of the field of aging. The recent demographic surge in people approaching or exceeding age 65 has created a new field of endeavor in which original ideas and fresh concepts are valued. One of the newest and freshest ideas in the field is "universal design"-an approach to making older people's dwellings habitable for them for as long as possible, regardless of the decrements of aging. "Aging in place" is fast becoming a selling concept not only for active adult housing, but for assisted living, and even for skilled nursing facilities wanting to become more homelike for all but the most frail of residents. But "aging in place" and "homelike" both risk becoming clichTs unless there is something real to back them up-some adaptation of the elderly residents' living environment to make it happen. That is where "universal design" comes in. One of its most well-known practitioners, authors and presenters, Mary Jo Peterson, discussed how some of these concepts might filter into the design planning of renovated and newly constructed facilities for long-term care in a recent interview with Nursing Homes/Long Term Care Management Editor Richard L. Peck. Peck: Why is universal design worth thinking about for a long-term care facility, and what might some initial considerations be?

Peterson: Universal design is a way of designing a dwelling so that it can accommodate aging and yet still look like home. What is interesting is that some facility developers are starting to move in that direction, but not far enough. Recently, for example, I visited an independent living facility that had a very charming dining room-small, very private feeling-and then I saw the bathroom, which was very hospital appearing, ADA compliant, all grab bars in place and looking like a place for sick people. If we think these things through, it doesn't have to be that way.

Peck: How do you "hide" that sort of necessary functionality?

Peterson: You don't have to hide it. You try to meld appearance and function. Take grab bars, for example. Standard-size, ADA-compliant, 1H" bars now come in every color of the rainbow and in finishes other than metallic. They can serve as decorative towel racks, and if you need to make them as visible as possible for aging eyes, you can build in contrast with the tile pattern behind them. In fact, if your budget can accommodate the price point of tile, you have every opportunity to make an impact with color selection and pattern. It's all about adding personality to the room.

Peck: Do you have other suggestions regarding bathroom design?

Peterson: One interesting point is that although the traditional bathroom is quite small, there is really no need to expand the space to make it more accessible and attractive. A good way to open it up is to make the entire floor a "wet" floor, so that you no longer need barriers for the shower area. Again, there is a lot you can do with tile here to make the bathroom attractive and inviting.

In addition, I'm starting to see wall-hung toilets making a comeback. They are so much easier to set at the correct height and maintain around the floor area. They disappeared from the market when the low-gallon flush tank came into use because the flushing mechanism just didn't work well, but the problem appears to have been addressed because one of the more active manufacturers, Geberit, recently reintroduced it.

Finally, there are some beautiful vanity models available that offer knee space beneath the sink so that the resident can sit at the sink.

The important thing to remember is that areas such as the bathroom can be upgraded in appearance, but with no compromise in safety and support. Peck: What about another area that you've concentrated on in your work in universal design-the kitchen?

Peterson: One area to focus on is the countertop. It wouldn't be impractical for developers of independent living units to provide lower countertops to begin with, because people shrink and begin to stoop as they age. But even with standard-height countertops, you can install pull-out countertops in spaces that normally would have drawers, so that people can sit at these lower-height counters as they work.

Also, you can have sinks with completely open space with finished flooring underneath-the plumbing is at the back-so someone could use that space to sit at the sink. The sinks themselves should be shallower (a maximum depth of 6H"), and the backsplash area can be designed for handy storage of accessories, such as salt and pepper shakers, spices and so forth. Optionally, the space could be enclosed by a fold-out door and used for storage or perhaps a rollout waste container.