The Inside Outside Guys: Universal design helps people age at home

Ken Calverley and Chuck Breidenstein
Special to The Detroit News

 In an old "Seinfeld" episode, Jerry makes a comment to the effect that the reason for his parents being in Florida is simple – when seniors retire, they are required to move there.

In a similar vein, our culture developed a belief that Mom and Dad would require assisted living or nursing homes to meet their changing needs as they aged.

But our parents and grandparents have waged a mild revolt by refusing to comply with the societal mandate. They have chosen to stay at home for a number of reasons, one of which is financial.

The average annual cost of care in a nursing home hovers near $100,000 while assisted living facilities can set you back a minimum $45,000 per year.

Recent studies have also supported the belief that there is reduced cognitive decline in seniors that stay in their homes versus those housed in a care facility.

The 2000 survey “Fixing to Stay” gave us an early indication of the attitudes of the postwar and boomer generations. It also forecasted some staggering statistics.

The number of those 65-plus years old will more than double to 80 million in the next 40 years, while the number of those 85 plus will quadruple in the same time span.

Universal design for bathrooms asks that the room be accessible to all, taking age and ability into consideration.

We are halfway through that 40-year span and the numbers are holding.

Even many of those that actually moved to warmer climes upon retirement are moving back; to be closer to friends, family, churches and medical care. The Savannah, Georgia, area saw an uptick of what they call “half-backs”; people moving part way back north just to be a little closer.

This mindset and cultural shift have pointed to the need for design and specification standards that allow the building industry to modify older homes to better accommodate the changing needs of the aging in place, AIP, clientele.

What we are defaulting to is a concept called universal design, UD.

UD applies to both aesthetics and use. On the application side it should create solutions that are “usable to the greatest extent possible by the largest number of people possible without regard for age, ability or status in life.”

A common universal design element is the lever type door handle. Consider that the standard round knob requires a measure of “grasp ability” that we cannot assume in young people, older people and those with diminished ability. A lever type handle is not only intuitive in its use and application, everyone quickly recognizes that you either depress or raise it to engage; it can also be utilized with a hand, forearm or other appendage.

It also has a high tolerance for error. There is no “risk” involved in raising a lever that was intended to be pushed downward to engage.

Lever type handles require very little effort and so can be used by a wide range of people regardless of age, size, and status in life.

Universal design standards would have us make modifications to a home that do not define the home as being occupied by a person with altered or diminished capacity. Instead of the winding, multiple switchback ramp in the front yard we might, instead, create a ramped concrete walkway surrounded by plantings to create a comfortable and attractive “zero-step” entrance to the front door of the home.

Bathrooms might be turned into “wet-rooms” that are beautiful variations of tile without any threshold or step into the shower area. This accommodates everyone from a Parkinson’s patient with a shuffling gait to a wheelchair-bound occupant.

Kitchens can be designed with colored accents at countertop edges to visually define where the surface begins and ends, and stoves can have their controls at the front side to minimize the opportunity of a burn from reaching over hot surfaces.

Lighting can attractively and affordably be used to better define stairs, floor surface changes and workspaces. Motion sensors can light the walkway to the bathroom for those late-night trips where an elder might not otherwise turn on a light.

This type of design, utilized in upgrades to existing homes, can be done one time for the same money an elder might spend for a single year or two of care in a facility.

When properly employed, universal design modifications can lend beauty and value to a home without stigmatizing it as belonging to an variously abled occupant.

And, as you my have guessed, you can find trusted professionals to help you with these modifications at

For housing advice and more, listen to the Inside Outside Guys every Saturday and Sunday on News/Talk 760, WJR-AM, from 10 a.m. to noon or contact us at