Decoration Day: Interior Design for Aging in Place (Part 2)

In the first of two posts, Toronto-based home re-designer Beth Hirshfeld of Thrive By Design delved into the ways good design can support safe, independent Aging in Place. In this post, the Certified Aging in Place Specialist gets into more practical detail -- the when, what and how.

Why use interior design rather than simply hire a handyman to install a grab bar, widen a door, and take on other projects as needed?

An effective design requires a comprehensive and strategic approach rather than just sporadic updates.

For example, many people who have difficulty with stairs assume that they need to move out of their home or that they can only remain if they install a chair lift or elevator. Although that may be a great solution for some, it is not the only or necessarily the best solution.

In some cases, controlling the use of stairs and making the stairs safer may actually be a better option.

As such, we would look at the stairs to make them as safe as possible. And we would also look at the functional design of the whole house and analyze when, why and how often people use the stairs. In many cases, for example, homeowners keep their children's rooms intact even though their children are now adults who visit only a couple of times per year. Conversely, they house their computer or laundry facilities, both of which they use multiple times per week, in the basement.

Adapting the home to put the main activities in one space and on one level would help minimize the number of times a person runs up and down the stairs. And we try to ensure that when they do, they don't have an arm full of laundry that prevents them from holding on to the stair rail for stability.

When do you think people should start making changes? How should they proceed?

It is never too early to start! Nonetheless, if a person is starting to find something in their home more difficult to navigate or use, it's often a good indicator that it's time to consider some modifications.

Planning earlier allows a person to implement modifications in a more thoughtful and strategic way, which leads to a better redesign with minimal stress and cost. However, many people don't think about making changes until it is almost too late, forcing them to consider a retirement home or long-term care residence - a move that might not have been necessary if they had acted earlier.

If you hire a home re-designer, make sure he or she can arrange for qualified contractors and relevant specialists to minimize your time and stress. If you're going to the trouble of installing grab bars, you want it done right for maximum safety, minimum damage to your walls, and to still look beautiful.

If people can't make all needed changes right away or don't know what to expect, how can they modify or adapt in a way that leaves room for future changes?

A plan that allows for phasing in change over time lets people change things when they are ready and able and to budget accordingly.

Ask your designer to break down the report into immediate, short-term and long-term opportunities. Immediate opportunities are generally things that people can do easily, even on their own, for little cost -- as in your book. They can see an immediate difference for very little investment, enabling them to get a better sense of the possibilities.

What age-proofing changes do you recommend that are more like traditional "decorating?"

Lighting can add function and safety to a space and can, at the same time, really enhance that space's drama and beauty.

People in their 60s need approximately 3 to 4 times as much light as younger individuals, but most homes do not accommodate for this reality. A recent study of mature adults found that more than 80 percent of the study's respondents were cooking in kitchens, reading in living spaces and showering in bathrooms that were too dark to adequately meet their needs.

This led to two problems. First, more than half bumped into things and almost half suffered some type of fall. Second, many stopped doing things they loved because they couldn't see well enough, which often led to discontentment or depression.

Updating lighting in an appropriate and strategic way to accommodate an individual's specific needs can make a huge difference in the ability to function in their home. It is not only safer but enables people to continue what they love in a space that looks brighter and more inviting to anyone that stops by for a visit.

If you were in your mid-50s shopping for new living room/dining furniture that you wanted to last for 20 to 30 years, what should you keep in mind?

The type of furniture that a person needs will depend on their particular needs, lifestyle and taste. Keep in mind the following:

  • Ergonomics and comfort: seating and furniture are well-suited to their use, well-sized, supportive and comfortable for your particular needs.
  • Ease of entry and exit: the design and height of the seating make it easy to get into and out of, both now and in the future.
  • Build and composition of furniture: the make-up and fabrics are appropriate for the particular individual's needs.
  • The needs of visitors: the seating works for both the homeowners and those who will visit and spend time at the house

What age-proofing housewarming or hostess gifts could people get for aging relatives or friends that would keep them safe and comfortable, without being patronizing?

For people with traditional mail slots in the front door, one of my favourite products is a Mail Catcher. This small device is hung at the back of the front door, at usually around waist height, to catch the mail pushed through the slot before it drops to the floor.

This device is helpful for anyone as it prevents mail from falling onto a wet or dirty floor on rainy days or from hiding under a doormat or shoes. For older adults with back pain or osteoporosis, for whom bending to pick up the mail from the floor can be painful and potentially unsafe, a simple Mail Catcher can make the difference between being able to get the daily mail or not.

This is one example of how a small and discreet home adjustment can have a very large impact on a person's independence and dignity at home.

As another example, if you're going to a dinner party, you might bring a set of attractive kitchen utensils, such as spatulas and serving spoons. Many new lines of kitchen products and utensils are lighter weight and ergonomically designed with easy grips and non-slip handles. To the untrained eye they look like any other kitchen tools. For someone who suffers diminished hand strength or arthritis, these items can greatly improve comfort and the overall use of the kitchen. And because many of these utensils come in beautiful colours they can even be displayed in a utensil holder and become a decorative feature!