I chuckled when I recently saw an ad for a hearing aid that is disguised to look like a wireless Bluetooth ear piece. Then I reconsidered. Aging baby boomers will go to great lengths to hide their gray hair, wrinkles, hair loss, yellowing teeth ... why not camouflage hearing aids too?
Our society places a stigma on old people; rather than revere our elders, as do many other cultures, North Americans have had a reputation for considering seniors a burden. However, now that the demographic of our country is shifting to an older average age, attitudes are changing. (The total population ages 65 and over in 2010 is projected to be 41 million). "They" are becoming "us," and "we" are paying attention.
Similar to changing notions about people's impact on climate change—and our rush to make sustainable choices (in both design and living habits)—change regarding design for older persons is inevitable. Truthfully, many of the design recommendations for senior living environments are simply tenets of Universal Design. Unlike the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Guidelines, which are minimum standards for barrier-free design, Universal Design, a term coined by architect Ron Mace more than two decades ago, "is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design."
Universal Design emphasizes the user of any ability and any size. The ADA emphasizes reasonable accommodation in removing barriers-mostly for mobility impairments and/or diminished vision or hearing. What is appealing about Universal Design is that it attempts to remove the stigma of being old or young, short or tall, thin or fat. It strives to create an even playing field for those who use wheel-chairs or scooters, push baby strollers or walkers, use crutches or canes, have a long stride or a short step.
In NCIDQ's newest monograph, Design for Senior Living, author Jane Rohde explores excellent design for senior living. Whether an independent living space, continuing-care retirement community, assisted living facility, or skilled-nursing facility, the design process is an integral part of creating high-quality design solutions. In this monograph, the author emphasizes the need for designers to have a broad base of knowledge, including: how to work as part of an integrated building and operations team; varied care models and their impacts on physical space programming; and the diverse needs of residents, facility managers, care providers and families.
Designers working in the senior-living market must also be familiar with the functional needs of residents with dementia and the needs of their caregivers, the integration of housing and services, building codes and guidelines, and sustainable business models. Carefully considering lighting sources and applications, how aging eyes perceive color, integrating technology, and specifying appropriate finishes and furniture are all aspects Rohde discusses based on her considerable expertise. Of course, Universal Design principles are also included.
In his last speech before passing away in 1998, Mace stated, "Universal Design broadly defines the user. It's a consumer market-driven issue. Its focus is not specifically on people with disabilities, but all people. It actually assumes the idea that everybody has a disability, and I feel strongly that that's the case. We all become disabled as we age and lose ability, whether we want to admit it or not. It is negative in our society to say ‘I am disabled' or ‘I am old.' We tend to discount people who are less than what we popularly consider to be ‘normal.' To be ‘normal' is to be perfect, capable, competent, and independent. Unfortunately, designers in our society also mistakenly assume that everyone fits this definition of ‘normal.' This just is not the case."
A day may come when images of canes, wheelchairs, oxygen tanks, and hearing aids do not automatically make us think "old age." Treads and risers to access buildings may be universally replaced by gradually sloping ramps. Automatic door openers will be the norm in residences, rather than the exception. ADA-sized bathroom stalls—which are preferred by most women (and, perhaps most men) when traveling with luggage, babies or young children—may become the standard solution in all public places.
If a hearing aid can be made to look like a cutting-edge, tech-savvy device, or reading glasses can look like the hottest Karim Rashid shades, then what are the limits? As designers, we have the power to design spaces that can make people's disabilities "disappear." We can design to enhance well-being and happiness of people young and old, regardless of ability or disability.
Suzy Regitz is a member of the NCIDQ board of directors and an NCIDQ Certificate holder. She is a registered interior designer in Illinois and is president of Suzy's Interiors in Chicago. Regitz has operated her own residential and contract design business for 44 years—specializing in renovations and homes offices. For more information on NCIDQ and its series of continuing education monographs, visit www.ncidq.org.