Posted by Kathy Burnes

Envision your future in your current home with universal design.Universal design seems like a no brainer. Who wouldn't want to live in a home and community environment that is flexible, easy to use, and requires minimal physical effort across the lifespan? Think of a sidewalk curb cut. It's a simple and ubiquitous design that has universal utility.

JF&CS and the Salem Council on Aging hosted Envision Your Future in Your Current Home at Salem State University on June 4 for older adults on the North Shore to learn about the importance and feasibility of adapting their current home environment.

Valerie Fletcher, executive director of the Institute for Human Centered Design (ICHD), gave a fascinating presentation that introduced the concepts of universal design, provided an education on exciting design developments around the world, and offered practical low-cost solutions that enhance comfort, confidence, and a sense of control.

Though there was a ton of great information, here are five practical takeaways:

  1. Though aging does not cause falls, falls are the leading cause of injury-related death for adults age 65 and older. Most falls occur in the home and stairs are a major cause. Try using non-slip adhesive strips on stairs, install railings on both sides of stairs, eliminate overhangs on steps, and provide a contrast color at the edge of the stair to make it easier to see.
  2. Light is critical for vision and mood. The amount of light we need at 20 years of age doubles at 40 and doubles again at 60. Maximizing daylight whenever possible and introducing it into the home from more than one direction (skylights, opposing walls) can help. Balance natural light with electric lighting using LED bulbs to immerse the space with light and minimize shadows. Task lighting for reading, sewing, working on crossword puzzles, etc. should be located above and behind the person and should provide multiple levels of brightness.
  3. Check out Washlets (made by Toto), also known as bidet toilets, a highly advanced system in hygiene and comfort. As people get older and frailer, it's harder for them to perform good personal hygiene and it's often a triggering reason – think urinary tract infections – for a move into a skilled nursing facility or a trip to the hospital. They are used everywhere in Japan and are engineered to improve ease of use for people of all ages and abilities.
  4. Visit ICHD in Boston (near North Station). It's a cool place. You will be able to experience not only the Washlet but other universally designed products!
  5. Variation in ability is ordinary, not special, and affects most of us for at least part of our lives. So we must become "user/experts." We can't expect effective design without the input of people whose abilities are different than the norm and who know where design fails and what works. We are the change agents in making universal design principles a normal part of community living!
Kathy BurnesKathy Burnes is Director of the JF&CS Center on Aging in Community, which sponsors programs and projects that promote social engagement, mental health, and quality of life for older adults and their care partners. These programs build on the power of local communities to encourage positive aging through social connection, the arts, spirituality, and support. Prior to coming to JF&CS in 2007, Kathy worked as a senior research associate at Boston College's Center for Corporate Citizenship and at the National Center on Women and Aging at Brandeis University. Kathy also worked for AARP and Operation ABLE of Greater Boston. She has a BA from the University of Michigan and a MEd in Rehabilitation Counseling from Northeastern University.