Homes can't speak for themselves or let us know when they would like to receive updates or upgrades to their appearance of function. So, we have to look at them and make this determination for them. Improving the physical appearance and function of living spaces - free-standing single-family homes or attached dwellings with several in the same building or structure - can be a very important aspect of what we do and the services we provide.
Thus, we have two ways to approach creating successful aging in place solutions. We can design with the the physical characteristics and needs of the home or living environment in mind, or we can design to accommodate the individual or individuals in the home. They aren't mutually exclusive either as the design likely will involve both elements - it's a matter of the starting point and the emphasis.
When we look at older homes in this country, often they present issues for people - regardless of their specific physical abilities or needs - just because of the way they were built. Many have not been updated to any serious extent over the years. They may have interior paint applied one or more times (likely with each change in occupancy), new flooring (such as carpeting replacement), new light fixtures or bulbs, and other changes that are more cosmetic or aesthetic rather than functional.
Older homes often are more challenging to navigate and use because of what was common construction methods or specifications when they were built. Doorways typically were much smaller than what we like to see today. While anything less than a 36" doorway can present issues for current occupants of homes, many older structures and dwelling were created with substantially smaller doorways.
Wider doorways generally were not available at that time so we can't be overly-critical for not having them included. However, we can focus on changing out the narrower doorways whenever we can. It's not that pocket doors and archways were never used to create wider door openings and passages. It's that these were not done to any great extent because the need or demand for them wasn't there. When they were used, it was done more for architectural interest or appeal rather than for the functional needs of people being able to pass through an opening easily.
Over the last several years, walkers have become much more common. A half-century ago, they mostly were not in use. People generally are larger physically today than they were years ago also. People are living longer and remaining in their homes considerably longer. Therefore, updating the physical characteristics of homes - doorways, windows, doorways, and lighting, for starters - can go a long way in improving the quality of life of those occupying the living space.
When we look at how individuals function in a space - especially in an older home - we often will observe that they are having difficulty in navigating their space well because of the way the home was constructed with narrower hallways, doorways, and higher or harder to open windows. Their physical abilities are a factor, but when combined with the challenges of the living in and using older homes because of their physical characteristics and traits, it becomes more of an accessibility and mobility issue than otherwise might be true.
Designing to accommodate the individual definitely is a priority in creating aging in place solutions, but recognizing that the dwelling or structure itself may be contributing to issues we observe means that we may want to start with the home itself to create a solution that will serve the occupants.
Steve Hoffacker, CAPS, CEAC, SHSS, is a licensed Certified Aging-In-Place Specialist-Master Instructor and best-selling author of universal design books. To learn about this and other programs for aging-in-place or universal design, visit stevehoffacker.com or call 561-685-5555. Also, check out the "Aging & Accessibility" groups on Facebook and LinkedIn.