Interior Design for Active Aging

As the baby boomers age, one reality is that the housing industry will be catering to a very large population that is retiring at a rapid clip. On a separate front, breakthroughs in medical technology are increasing the life expectancy of the total populace.
The costs and shortage of retirement facilities, coupled with the desire to 'age in place' have all converged to cause the boomers to remodel their homes to accommodate the needs of themselves - or their elderly parents. This has spurred research in behavioral psychology and performance analysis of barrier free construction with the aim of achieving sophisticated interiors that foster the users' sense of well-being without compromising health and safety. The movement to design environments and products that are usable and appealing to everyone regardless of age, ability, or circumstance is called Universal Design.
Environmental psychologists who study the interplay between humans and their surroundings classify spaces as either high-load (stimulating), or low-load (not stimulating). Interior designers recognize this issue and look to devise solutions that are sensitive to the clients' psychological needs. The distinct relationship between a stimulating environment and feeling of well-being is particularly significant if the house's occupants start spending a great deal more time there than before. Hence people who thrived on high-load environments can be adversely affected on retirement when they spend long periods of time at home under constant low-load settings.
Research indicates that exercise and various forms of entertainment allow people modify their amount of environmental stimulus and help maintain their intellectual, social and motor skills. The key therefore is to provide activity areas that are inviting and functional enough to encourage their frequent use.
With an estimated 35 million households being headed by persons 65 and older in the next decade, barrier free interiors will enjoy wide market appeal and appreciation, making universal design both practical and financially rewarding. Statistics show that a majority of the people will suffer some disability in their lifetime. In fact, a well designed wheelchair accessible home need not look institutional but can be as elegant as a conventional one. A well-appointed and barrier free home is invaluable if the occupant becomes disabled, no matter how temporary.
An important step in planning interiors is to analyze whether the current environment really meets the needs of a more mature occupant. The types of hardware on sinks, doors, cabinets, electrical outlets and switch plates etc. should be evaluated both for ease of operation and reach. It is also important to apply ergonomic principles throughout a home when designing for aging in place to ensure accessibility as time goes on.
It is helpful to remember the truism "less is more" when it comes to planning for the age wave - it is essential that the interior design does not overwhelm the senses and confuse the viewer. In the same vein, architectural elements such as steps and doors or wall openings should be simplified for safety reasons.
For furniture and counters, radius or beveled edges are preferable to square corners in case of falls. When shopping for dining room furniture, look for sturdy armchairs with a firm seat so it's easier to get in and out of, and consider a higher dining table to accommodate wheelchair users.
As the eye ages, it loses sensitivity to the blue-green spectrum. It is therefore important to create an attractive alternate palette to enrich the users' environment and mitigate issues with depth perception. Moreover, their vision is adversely affected by glares and strong brightness contrasts, so highly dramatic lighting should be avoided. Wall, floor, window coverings and furniture should therefore be chosen to minimize reflections in the interior for both safety and visual comfort.
Other practical considerations include low-maintenance materials and soil-hiding patterns for seating and flooring. Avoid polished stone tiles, since they are treacherous when wet and the reflective surfaces create unwanted glare. When selecting carpeting, choose dense and low pile products, as they are better for anyone with mobility issues. Because of the large number of people suffering from adult asthma, proactively using green and eco-friendly products such as lime plaster walls to improve indoor air quality will yield health dividends in the long run.
Indeed, as boomers are healthier and more active than prior generations, it is critical to have their homes designed to support their lifestyles and have an environment that is enriching to both their minds and bodies.
Marie Chan, CID, ASID, is principal of InterSpace Design. The Silicon Valley firm offers commercial and residential space planning & interior design services, with special emphasis on lighting.
She loves to repurpose and up-cycle her clients' furnishings to extend the lives of their cherished pieces. Additionally, she can use her GREEN AP training to help clients make eco-friendly choices when designing their home or office.

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