Senior Citizen's Guide digital books
Senior Citizen's Guide to North Jersey

Universal Design Concept
Improves Senior Housing

Once a geographic area is chosen, many seniors begin retirement community-shopping to address personal needs. With today’s abundant choices from suburban condominiums to single-family homes in country club settings, decisions will most often pivot on amenities and floor plan preferences.

However, selection-wise seniors today are becoming aware of a new criteria affecting home design: built-in features that provide conveniences and comfort for current living as well as later years when aging may diminish activities. In both contemporary architecture and housing product lines, the concept is known as “Universal Design.”

Its applications can be found everywhere: In transportation, buses have “kneeling” capacity bringing front ends to a ground-level position for easier access to kitchen dishware with steeper sides and contrasting colors aiding visual and dexterity problems. From toothbrushes to homes, Universal Design has become the new standard to measure improved accessibility.

The idea grew from principles adopted in 1961 termed “Barrier Free Design” that established special criteria for disabled individuals. Universal Design concepts later expanded design improvement to emphasize accessibility for everyone and almost everything they might use in day-to-day living.

Today’s adult housing uses those design principles as guidelines to optimize floor plan layouts and built-in features, providing improved accessibility and added convenience for any buyer, whether or not a disability is involved.

A ‘Boomer’ buyer surveying active adult communities today might look for dozens of built-in features that may include ground-level entry, extra-wide interior doors and hallways, lever-handles to replace twisting knobs or large panel lighting switches instead of smaller toggle types, all the result of adaptation of Universal Design.

Operations Vice-President Keith Grady incorporated this philosophy in the restyling of residences at Winchester Gardens, a continuing care retirement community in Maplewood, N.J., beginning with surveys of residents and shoppers to determine what they would add to an existing home to improve their lifestyle. (An AARP study reports 95 percent of Americans age 75+ want to stay where they are living).

A Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS), Grady knew improving kitchens with upgraded stainless steel appliances and granite countertops no longer were considered significant differences even for a 62+ age adult.

“Three key elements became clear: we needed to keep improvements affordable, make them both attractive and functional, and address accessibility,” he said. Among the more surprising results: many retirees used bathtubs for storage, reflecting the need for more closet space.

Overall, the surveys combined with Universal Design standards determined the repositioning direction for the timeless Winchester Gardens’ floor plans that now offer additional safety and accessibility throughout kitchens, baths and closets, focused on resident comfort within existing living space.

Mobility issues were addressed for safety and independence with baths redesigned with level thresholds and walk-in tub areas for safety, much like what you find in a hotel spa. Closets were designed to accept adaptable storage systems.

Other elements included changing fluorescent lighting in kitchens and baths to high hats to reduce glare and dead spots. Light switches were lowered and plug-in outlets raised by six inches for easier access. Kitchens were equipped with under-counter lighting and cabinetry that now includes pull-out drawers and handles.

The impact of Universal Design is not only changing private housing. Such attention to detailing accessibility has become so vital that in neighboring Westchester County (N.Y.), the Board of Legislators on July 2011 approved legislation requiring Universal Design in all new residential housing supported by county funding.

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