Universal design is being promoted as a solution for people who want to age in place. It is about allowing people with various special needs to function independently and therefore feel strong and empowered. This is an important shift in awareness in the design world but similar to design for handicapped accessibility it will take a long time to realize and will not be economically and functionally feasible in all instances. As much as design for accessibility has opened doors, Universal Design will do the same. At the same time there has to be extreme caution to not mistake design for accessibility or Universal Design as the solution to designing a home for the second stage of life. Right now, housing design for an aging population often stops with design for accessibility and paired with design patterns from the hospitality industry, is sold as the appropriate home for an aging population.
But being ‘at home with growing old’ is much more complex and specific in its physical and emotional needs. Change is part of getting older and it is more challenging to accept as we are more set in our ways and have found what suits us. Moving from a long term home is often part of it and even if we do not move, we change or our neighborhood changes. We can stay ‘at home with growing old’ through these changes if we can maintain a sense of self, a sense of purpose and a sense of belonging. Meeting those needs becomes more important as we grow old since we spend more time at home and require or desire more assistance with daily life and home becomes the expression of our competence in the world.
Bringing Universal Design to housing for an aging population has to address these needs as much as wider doorways or turning radii for wheel chairs. Universal Design is not only about architectural, product or visual design but about all the variables that affect these human needs, from service design to the way our cities are designed. Universal Design Reimagined is therefore a design process that is interdisciplinary in its nature from the start. Architecture has the potential to contribute a lot to this process, not only with spatial designs, but also with design thinking that can support solutions in other disciplines. These solutions are often not spectacular but thoughtful and detail oriented. It takes time to notice them but their effect is great.
Supporting a sense of self has very much to do with providing opportunities for personalizing home. In spatial design theses are ambiguous spaces such as a wider hall way that allows for a book shelf or a desk if so desired, a deep sill that allows for flower pots, a nook. A sense of purpose is about making a home for growing old function like a work shop – with an order and functionality that support competence and is therefore also beautiful. A kitchen for example that really answers to the needs of an older person with a design that offers the possibility and incentive to continue to ‘keep house’ and stay engaged. A sense of belonging is supported by establishing territories and making clear where the private realm starts and the public realm ends. A door, a beautiful stair (not an elevator) as an extended threshold to the public can express that.
Design for aging has to come from a deep, cross disciplinary understanding of people’s needs. Too often social service providers or developers see good design as an expensive luxury while architects and designers do not understand the mental, physical and social needs of the people living in their buildings\using their products. There is a need for shared design criteria that help guide such a collaborative design process. Such criteria could be ‘Safety’, ‘Connection’ and ‘Beauty ’. Safety is about being safe in mind and body, in the home and our environment. Connection is about staying connected to our body, our mind, the world around us and the people close to us. Beauty is about bringing delight into daily life, from our home to our body and to our surroundings.