Moving Downstairs: Thinking About Design as We Get Older

Moving Downstairs: Thinking About Design as We Get Older

Maxwell Ryan
Mar 17, 2014
(Image credit: Light Locations)

My mother turned eighty-one this February, had a lovely birthday and then found herself weeks later with so much pain in her hip that she was unable to climb the stairs up from the bedroom one morning. This was a brand new experience, it sent her to the hospital and now has her doing rehab and recovering for the past week at a facility in Connecticut. She's being a great sport, but she's not happy about it and it's been very hard for her to keep her spirits up when she can remember how much more quickly she recovered the last time she had surgery. And it got us all thinking about stairs in a totally new light.

When you have children you rethink the whole home to keep them safe from sharp edges and away from staircases. Glass coffee tables get removed, sofas get microfiber covers, and food needs to be pureed. Then everything is normal for awhile. You breathe a deep sigh of relief, and forget that you'll ever have to do this again. But you will.

When you get older the home becomes a danger zone again, only it's you and/or your parents you are concerned about and not your kids. Stairs become impassable, luxurious Jacuzzi tubs unusable, and forget sitting in your low-slung hippie living room with seating practically on the floor.

And most of the time, unlike with children, no one wants to talk about it.

We, as a family, have just started to think about this and talk about it, which is difficult but nice. In a few short conversations with my mother and brother this weekend, beyond the tip toeing and fear of being stuck like this forever, there were a few bright spots. I was surprised and delighted when she greeted the thought of moving out of her house (with the stairs) with a little excitement. She had a vision of a new space that would contain her art studio, be more comfortable and closer to us. Or there was undertaking a long talked about, but never done renovation which could reconfigure everything and create a far better insulated home, cutting down on the big heating bills in winter.

Suddenly we were talking about options.

I don't have a lot of answers yet, but, as a designer, I like to think that every problem is solvable with ingenuity and thinking, and that constraints (as Charles Eames said) are necessary for good design. So, consider this the beginning of a conversation, and one in which I'm interested in your experiences.

How many of you have had to redesign or help your parents change their home as they've grown older?

What do you do about the staircase?

What are the other biggest challenges in the typical home for older people?

Where you have you discovered victories?

To also help get the conversation started, I've found ten links to really good resources which I've found helpful.
1. 6 Ideas for Elder-Friendly Design
A quick list of problem areas and why from floors, to stairs and bathrooms.
2. Gordon Walker's Retirement Cottage: Getting Older Doesn't Mean Ditching Good Design
An inspiring look at a cool retirement house near Seattle that doesn't look like it is.
3. Universal Design description
A nice overview of the design movement intended to solve the problem of how to make spaces work for older people as well as others with disabilities.
4. Ban The Knobs? The Doorknob Could End Up On The Scrap Heap Of History
Vancouver bans door knobs on all new construction in favor of universally designed levers
5. In the Backyard, Grandma’s New Apartment
A blog posting about MEDCottages, a prefab home unit designed for older people.
6. Design For Aging Parents
Nice facebook page by Randi Destefano with links to articles all over the web
7. Before & After: Lynn's Lightened & Updated Kitchen Corner
Great little before and after by a retired couple that comes with this comment by Queen Carmelita: "I'm always happy to see design from people my age. As someone else said we are not all hipsters here. Broken hipsters maybe!! Just kidding of course. I see a need for aging in place design as the baby boomers are all now over 50 and often caring for aging parents themselves."
(Image credit: Emily Henderson)
8. Fran's Sunrise Senior Living Makeover
Lovely article by Emily Henderson on her makeover for Fran: "Sunrise Living had a national contest for a makeover for one of their residents, and Fran, who nominated herself and was dying for a makeover of her space, won."
9. Architects Homes for Their Parents
Dwell Magazing puts together a slide show of shelter porn for parents and here's another one.
10. The National Aging In Place Council
Yes, there's a national council for home builders and consumers dedicated to this. And here's an interesting fact: "The National Association of Homebuilders now estimates that over 70% of homeowners doing a remodeling project are planning for the future needs of themselves or their parents."

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