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Aging in the Right Place: What is Universal Design and Can it Work for You?

Posted on January 13, 2020 | by Michael Moore Jr., Herald-Tribune Media Group
Aging in the Right Place: What is Universal Design and Can it Work for You?

For those looking to stay in their home long-term, which according to figures from AARP could be as many as 87% of adults age 65 and older, "Universal Design" is an important term to know.

This was one of many themes discussed by experts at the recent Aging in the Right Place Forum held at Broadway Promenade in Sarasota. The panel, which was hosted by Cornerstone LifeCare, featured a variety of experts on aging who shared vital keys to planning and implementing steps for those looking to age in place.

A primary focus of the forum was how to adapt your current living environment to improve accessibility, convenience, levels of care, functionality, and safety while staying right where you are. And what's the best way to do that? Well, it just might be incorporating some elements of Universal Design.

For Chuck Vollmer, a certified aging-in-place specialist who is a board member of the Universal Design Coalition and owner of 101 Mobility, a company that focuses on mobility and accessibility solutions for homes, thinking about Universal Design is more important than ever as the demographics of those 65 and older continues to grow, with the majority of people wishing to stay in their own home.

"The first thing you have to understand about Universal Design is what it is because a lot of people believe that Universal Design is you putting in grab bars when you have a problem. That's not Universal Design; that's a necessary evil," said Vollmer. "Universal Design is a plan ... and it's not just a plan for older people, it's a plan that works for and is important for everybody."

There are seven basic principles of Universal Design that were developed in 1997 by a group of architects, product designers, engineers, and environmental design researchers, with the purpose of guiding design in a way that makes homes more livable.

These principles are equitable use, flexibility in use, simple and intuitive use, perceptible information, tolerance for error, low physical effort, and size and space for approach and use.

Essentially, it boils down to design elements of homes being simple and easy to use, being consistent and easy to understand, and requiring low physical effort with as little chance for hazard and harm as possible. It's all about making homes easy to use and safe for everyone, regardless of what stage you are at in life,

This includes eliminating or minimizing stairs when possible, replacing doorknobs with levers, trading traditional faucets for more accommodating models, minimizing level changes, widening hallways, so they are at least 36 inches and much, much more.

Many people can't do this all at once, which is why it's essential to have a plan.

According to Vollmer and other panelists, Universal Design shouldn't be an overwhelming concept that ties your hands, but instead should be used as a guide that helps you consider what to look for in a house or what changes to make in your own home. Researching its concepts, understanding what it is, and speaking with contractors and consultants who understand Universal Design could be a key to aging in the right place.

"Whether you're getting a little older and are starting to have some mobility issues, or if you're a child that has special needs or a disability, this is a plan that should work for everybody. And that's the point," said Vollmer.


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