In recent years, there has been an increasing interest in the concept of “aging in place.” Aging in place embodies the idea that a majority of seniors wish to remain in their homes as they age, rather than relocating to nursing homes or other senior care facilities. Thus, there has been a trend toward incorporating senior-friendly elements (i.e. master bedrooms on the first floor, wider doorways and walkways for wheelchair accessibility, intercom systems, etc.) into housing design to better accommodate independent living. There has also been a shift toward the development of intergenerational housing complexes in which seniors, students, and young families interact and share common areas in apartment style buildings. Intergenerational housing allows seniors to maintain independent living without being distanced from younger generations.
While aging in place and intergenerational housing complexes are certainly innovative practices, I believe that they are reactive, rather than proactive measures. Why wait until our loved ones have aged, when we can solve the problem while they are still young? According to 1992 U.S. Census data, it was calculated that the average American moves a total of 11.7 times during the course of his or her lifetime. While this high rate of mobility is most typically attributed to military reassignment, job relocation, and the instability of the housing market, the reason for moving is usually much simpler. Quite often, people move because the two-bedroom apartment that was perfect for a college bachelor is no longer suitable for an active family of four. Similarly, the six-bedroom estate that was a memorable summer retreat is no longer feasible for the elderly couple that struggles with its upkeep.
Thus, the true solution is not aging in place, but rather “growing in place.” By designing homes that can adapt to individuals in all phases of life, we can avoid the need to retrofit houses later in life as family dynamics change.
Some tips for growing in place are as follows:
- When looking at a house, try to see yourself through the eyes of family members and guests. Will your children’s bedrooms be able to fit a full/queen-size bed as they mature or will they be stuck with a twin-size bed? Will the in-laws have to sit on the couch at Thanksgiving or will there be enough room for a large dining room table? When guests have to use the powder room, will you hear the toilet flushing in the kitchen? Do you have suitable outdoor space for entertaining and recreation? Is there a proper division of space -- can your husband watch the football game without disturbing you while you update files for work?
- Do not buy a house with the idea that you will move in a year or two; your financial situation may change at any point. Plan ahead for the future and buy a house that has slightly more room than you currently need, but is still within your budget. If you know for certain that you will only be in a location temporarily, consider renting.
- If you are considering starting a family or have young children, avoid floor plans with sharp angles, steep stairs, and traditional wooden guardrails overlooking lower levels. Instead, look for more open floor plans that maximize visibility and encourage family interaction.
- Avoid storage in high places. While ceiling-height cabinetry is attractive, stepstools can become a safety hazard for children and the elderly. Explore more innovative options such as lower cabinetry with pullout drawers. Credenzas and chests also offer easy access storage spaces, especially for linens and dishes.
- Consider having a master bedroom on the first level. As you age, it may become more difficult to get up and down the stairs. Plan for the possibility of limited mobility, and design your bathroom with shallow tubs, handrails, higher toilet seats, and wide doorways and hallways. With today’s creative design, these features can be both unobtrusive and attractive.
- Invest in a home security system, such as ADT, and install intercoms throughout the house. This adds a sense of safety and aids in communication.
- Finally, and most importantly, make sure that you have the proper homeowners insurance. Should anything happen to your home, the more adequate coverage you have, the better. It may also be helpful to look into insurance policies that are geographically specific, such as flood insurance if your home is located along a coastline.
Guest Contributor: Danielle Coles