The word is so taboo many interior designers avoid even using it when working with clients.
“I don’t ever use the word ‘aging’,” says Cleveland, Ohio-based designer Laura Minieff. “I don’t have it in my vocabulary.”
Yet, as baby boomers edge into older age, and many are already helping their parents stay in their homes as long as possible, the popularity of this phrase is growing: “aging in place.’’
A design solution formerly more focused on in-home design changes—like adding grab bars in the bathroom or lowering kitchen counters—is now expanding. These days, “aging in place” also incorporates new technology, rebooted urban design and a strong focus on staying connected to family, friends and caregivers.
According to a 2018 survey by AARP, three-quarters of Americans over 50 want to remain in their homes rather than move into an institutional setting like a nursing home or other facility.
That “aha” moment when we realize we need help can hit much sooner than expected.
Realizing it’s time
“I get calls every day” from potential clients who need to reconfigure their current home to accommodate changing needs, whether those are temporary or permanent, says Minieff.
Typically, it’s spurred by what she calls “a catalytic event,” perhaps a stroke or a car accident with its accompanying rehabilitation, or the sudden departure of a spouse or children leaving the nest.
Even retirement, as residents spend a lot more time in their homes, can bring fresh eyes and insights to a familiar space, she says.
Once clients realize changes are needed, “it is a very, very honest conversation,” she adds. “You do have to do it with compassion.”
Some standard adaptive changes include entryways to the home with no stairs or steps, showers without a curb or no door, widened doorways to accommodate a wheelchair or walker and floors free of rugs that can invite a slip and dangerous fall.
The conversation, like that with any designer or architect, begins with a frank discussion about daily life in the home—Does it include adult children, possibly with their own special needs? Grandchildren? Pets? A work area?
For Katrina VanHuss, a fundraising consultant in Mechanicsville, Va., the conversation about making her home as safe and comfortable for aging in place was already familiar—thanks to caring for her 27-year-old daughter who has Down Syndrome and who lives at home.
“I knew what I wanted because my daughter has low tone [diminished physical strength] and difficulties with vision and hearing,’’ she says. “You need grab bars everywhere. Living with her has taught me a lot.”
Her mother, now 77, is also likely to move into their house, so VanHuss and her husband have invested significantly to be ready for her as well as housing a caregiver when she and her husband need one.
To improve their vision, they added lots of light: can lights in the ceilings in the kitchen and spotlights in the kitchen. They also use at least three lamps controlled by a smart speaker in every room.
The decision to stay in their 2,200-square foot house, built in 1972, was easy, she says, thanks to its two-acre lot, a neighborhood they love and a lake.
“We use Echo and Alexa everywhere and they’re really helpful to turn lights on before you enter a room,” she says
“I can watch eagles hunting,” she says. “When we were deciding what do to, I asked ‘ What’s going to make us happy?’”
It has come, she admits, at a very high cost—almost the current value of their home—with a $270,000 addition.
“I plan to die there,” she says.
More than a grab bar
Staying safely and comfortably in one’s home, whether an apartment or house, isn’t just a matter of adding new features or subtracting others, argues John Wetmore, an activist for pedestrian safety.
“It’s not just the building itself,” he says. “Is it accessible? Are there sidewalks?”
The streets we rely on daily can ease our odds of aging in place or present a dangerous, slippery set of obstacles, he says.
In his suburban county outside D.C., a nearby muddy path led to the nearest bus stop, imperiling anyone with mobility challenges. It took years of complaining to local authorities, but the path is now paved, Wetmore said.
When many suburbs were built in the 1960s and 1970s, “sidewalks were considered old-fashioned, but all of a sudden these suburbs are a tough place to retire in,” he says.
“We’re just now the generation getting to the point where we don’t drive any more and it will become more and more of a problem,” says Wetmore, now 61.
“What happens if I’m frail with a walker or a cane or a wheelchair?’’ he asks. “You need to take a good look at these neighborhoods.”
The generational shift
Aging in place will soon mean much more than making architectural and urban design changes, predicts Drew Miller, executive director of design at frogHealth, a division of frog, a global design and strategy consultancy working in the U.S., Europe and Asia.
“We’re seeing a massive generational shift,” he says. “Our generation has gone through a significant caregiving experience with their own parents.”
Previous generations didn’t live as long, with many now surviving into their mid to late 90s, spurring those now in their 50s and 60s to be “pro-active and planning.”
“They want to get out ahead of these issues because when you’ve seen it happen to your parents you see your future and that’s an impetus to action,” Miller says.
So staffers in Miller’s Austin, TX office collaborated with their peers in San Francisco, New York and Shanghai, realizing that “aging in place” happens in three distinct stages as people move from being “independents” to “transitioners” to “strugglers.”
“There’s a progression,” says Miller. “Think of this as a journey you go through many times. You may notice something is physically different or an event triggers that recognition. That, in turn, produces negative feelings as you adjust to the ‘new normal.’”
Those aging in place need additional levels of support: financially, cognitively, physically and emotionally, Miller adds. “We talked to seniors, adult caregivers, spouse caregivers and senior living specialists,” he says. “This allowed us to see the different approaches people took.”
Facing the future
Key to success will be new uses of current technology, he says. While Alexa and Echo and their cohort are familiar, there is also a need for tech that initiates contact,to help potentially isolated seniors stay safe and in touch with their families, friends and healthcare providers.
LifePod, a virtual caregiver or companion, is completely voice-controlled and can ask a senior living alone if she’s taken her medication or spoken to a friend that day.
The real challenge, experts agree, is facing the future and getting our homes, hearts and heads ready for it.
“It’s huge!” says Miller. “This ability to engage directly and to send notifications and regular reports is probably the most exciting solution I’ve seen for home healthcare.”
“These are the seasons of life,” says VanHuss. “Fighting them is counter-productive.”