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Demographics & Designers
Meeting the needs and vanities of the largest generation in history—Baby Boomers determined not to let aging get in their way.
by Linda Elliott Smith, FASID
Eight years ago, the vanguard of the 75 million strong Baby Boom generation turned 50. In 2011, the first boomers will reach age 65 and begin their exit, en masse, from the workforce. Presently, boomers are doing everything they can to deny or counteract the effects of aging. Eventually, these baby boomers will be forced to acknowledge the physical challenges presented by the aging process. But their expectations about their quality of life will be no less demanding, and they will be no less concerned about maintaining their youthfulness and their independence.
As boomers begin to plan for retirement, they are thinking seriously about the kinds of spaces they will call home. They want environments that will enhance their active and changing lifestyles. Designers are being challenged to create spaces that not only are functional and aesthetically pleasing, but also mitigate the effects of the aging process.
Yet, baby boomers are unprepared in many cases for the adjustments to their environments that need to be made in order to enhance not only their present quality of life but their future needs as well. Up to now, it has been a hard sell to get mid-life and older homeowners to appreciate how the principles of universal design can positively affect their quality of life and help them prepare for future life changes. However, as more of them are faced with caring for aging or disabled parents, they are beginning to realize the benefits of environments that are functional and adaptable. Based on previous market behavior, as this awareness ripples through the first and second wave of baby boomers, we can expect to see an increased demand for greater functionality married with enhanced aesthetics and a wider range of choices.
Designers ignoring the market demand of this population will do so at their own peril. During the next 20 to 30 years, boomers will change cultural perceptions of retirement and aging, along with the markets, industries and institutions with whom they interact. The residential marketplace will be one of these. The housing market is currently saturated with properties that are not—and were never intended to be—appropriate to the physiological changes that occur in later life. According to a recent study by the AARP, 75 percent of Americans who are 45 years and older expect to remain in their homes the rest of their lives, but only 51 percent of these homeowners think that they will need to change their homes as they age. With average life expectancies for both men and women falling well into their 80s, the likelihood, in fact, is that most of these individuals will require new homes, renovations to their existing homes or age-appropriate modifications or assistive devices if they wish to avoid moving to an institutional care facility or assisted living facility at some point.
Further, many boomers will choose or be required out of economic necessity to remain in the workforce well past the traditional retirement age of 65. Work spaces also will have to be modified to meet their needs and to ensure that they can remain productive. Public spaces, too, will need to be created or renovated to improve ease of access for greater numbers of individuals with limited mobility. Hotels, restaurants, spas and resorts that hope to attract the more affluent retired baby boomers will need to provide appropriate facilities that are stylish as well as functional.
It is imperative, therefore, that interior designers continue to grow their knowledge of universal and adaptive design. There will be innumerable opportunities for those knowledgeable practitioners who develop creative and aesthetically pleasing solutions that address both the needs and the vanities of the largest generational cohort in history, who are determined not to let aging get in the way of getting older.
Linda Elliot Smith is president of education-works, inc. in Dallas, TX, and serves as president of ASID. She has served the society in a number of volunteer positions for more than 20 years. ASID can be reached at (202) 546-3580; fax: (202) 546-3240; www.asid.org.