How to Design for Aging in Place

March 12, 2022|In SD Blog|By Danine Alati

If we’ve learned anything by 2022—two years into the COVID-19 pandemic—it’s that interior design must be flexible to respond to new ways of working and living. And designing to accommodate for aging in place has become critical, presenting ripe opportunities for innovative interior designers who are adept at creating living spaces for aging seniors. As people age, most would opt to remain living independently in their own homes, so the question remains: How can they do so safely and happily? Three experts share with Studio Designer strategies for how to design residences for this demographic that will allow them to gracefully age in place.

“Everyone would like to stay in their home,” notes architect, interior designer, and senior living specialist Jane M. Rohde, principal of JSR Associates and founder of Live Together, Inc. The key is figuring out what’s the best way to enable that to happen. To get the ball rolling, Rohde advises hiring a professional. “Often older adults will not want to take advice from their adult children,” she explains. “However, having an outside occupational therapist come in and do an assessment of home conditions is an excellent way to encourage assistance from an outside entity that is viewed as an expert. Communication is the key.”

Aesthetics for All

Once an expert evaluates the space, it becomes clear what design updates can easily be made, what retrofits may require more extensive design work, and what medical and/or safety measures must be implemented. “The goal is for design updates to not be stigmatizing, but well-designed to accommodate change as residents age. No one wants to be considered ‘old,’ and aesthetics are equally as important at 80 years old as they are at 20 years old, ” says Rohde, who advocates for a person-centered care model and whose nonprofit organization Live Together presents the concept of intentional intergenerational living, which strategically caters to all ages and care levels living together in a symbiotic community where the younger generation can learn from the older adults and vice versa.

A bedroom with a neutral palette, no rug, and warm textures in the form of drapery, bedding, and a throw. | Design by Parker & Harlow | Photo: Heather Ross

“Choosing materials, products, and layouts that accommodate the design aesthetic while also taking into account durability, feel, and ease of use are all important considerations,” offers Studio Designer client Paige Gray, principal designer of Parker & Harlow. But she says mobility takes the lead when designing spaces for clients who plan to age in place. “Creating enhanced mobility for clients that have support walkers and stands can take on a more minimal approach in staging furniture or removing pieces altogether. It can tend to look a little stark when minimizing a space, but we encourage our clients to have fun with things that can be more open, such as art, lighting, or paint colors.”

When designing bathrooms to account for mobility, Gray explains, “Floating vanities that allow for wheelchair access or even more room in the shower for a care-aid to be present are all things we discuss in our initial consultation with our clients so they can consider needs that may come later on.”

Form Follows Function

Wide aisles and doorways bank of windows and no rugs. | Design by Tish Mills | Photo: Chris Little

Aging adults do not want to feel like children, and their needs, wants, and requests for how and where they live should take precedent. “Many times we will ask our clients to show us how they use the space and highlight details that work for them and those they’d like to change. Embracing their specificities, we then apply those desired changes into a cohesive plan,” Gray notes. “Sometimes that means integrating current items that work well for them into a new concept. Other times our clients are open to a whole fresh start. Either way, we’ve noticed that designing for an aging client takes on a function-first approach.”

Interior designer Tish Mills, founder of Harmonious Living, offers up several priority factors when designing for aging in place, including “slightly brighter lighting mixed with really good natural light; non-slip flooring; attention to minimize the change in flooring plane, such as zero-entry showers; and wider hallways, doorways, and more gracious bathroom area.” She adds that she elects to “keep the design simple and soothing rather than loaded with more of frenetic feel. Less range of color and pattern helps keep the mind at ease for a failing memory.”

When selecting materials, Mills says an important strategy is to add a good contrast of countertop material coloration to that of the flooring. “As the eyesight fails, we need visual cues to help determine the difference in surfaces,” she notes. “I avoid sharp corners on tables and countertops to help if a client is prone to losing balance. I am careful to not select highly reflective surfaces such as mirrored furniture so that there isn’t a moment of confusion with a failing memory. [And] in kitchens and bathrooms I keep active storage at a lower level so that there is no reaching and stretching, which can lead to falls,” including placing medications at arm’s reach and not stored too high.

Like Gray, Mills says she opts to strip away extra “stuff” to create a more minimal space and prevent clutter that can cause trips and falls. “I tend to use less furniture and groupings when working with this clientele,” she explains, adding that since she reduces rug coverage because of tripping hazards, she employs more fabric on the windows to help with sound absorption.

Similarly, Gray says she takes care when specifying materials for aging in place by selecting “​anything that may add to the comfort of living such as cozy fabric choices, ergonomically appropriate furniture, or integrating sentimental items into the design.” She notes, “With optimal comfort and coziness in mind, we make sure the materials we use are going to last and are high quality. [And] easy cleaning and maintenance are another consideration.”

Safety First

This Tailor Sectional from Kravet has a shallower depth and shorter height than conventional sectionals.

When designing for older clients, safety criteria cannot be underestimated. As such, the provision of grab bars in bathroom locations ranks as high-priority. “Falls can occur when towel bars, drawers, or other movable pieces that are not intended to be weight-bearing [are used] to support getting in and out of bathing areas,” Rohde explains. “Providing a vertical grab bar at the entry of the bathing fixture, appropriate seating to address a person’s specific needs, and support while bathing are all important.”

Accounting for ergonomics is also vital to tailoring a space for an aging demographic. Gray explains, “We find that higher furniture pieces with less of a drop when sitting are beneficial, as well as a shallow seat with a tighter back. Loose pillows tend to just get in the way for our clients, who are looking to streamline transfers between sofas and chairs to their walkers or wheelchairs. Often we will need to integrate a motorized chair into the design scheme for this exact purpose.”

Planning Ahead

This is an example of less furniture and balance of natural light, overhead and task with floor-to-ceiling drapes. | Design by Tish Mills | Photo: Chris Little

Rohde also mentions planning for future use as a critical concern when designing for aging in place. If building a new home, she suggests looking for where a residential elevator may be installed at a later date, situating primary bedrooms and bathrooms on the first floor to anticipate future limited mobility, and providing a private suite for a potential caregiver. But Rohde stresses that people are at the center of all her firm does, and all designs should be created with the end-user in mind—and these needs change as the client ages. All design solutions do not work for everyone. For example, Rohde suggests using technology like Alexa if the resident is amenable to it, as reminders can be set up for taking medications, meal times, etc. But dementia patients might not respond well to this type of integrated technology, so such solutions must first be vetted before applying a one-size-fits-all approach. Rohde urges, “We are all individuals—and remain so throughout our lifespan.”

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FEATURED IMAGE: Design by Tish Mills | Photo: Chris Little