Designing Spaces for Seniors in Your Home
By Jennifer L. Prince
Expectant parents await their baby’s arrival with great anticipation and planning. They stock the dressers with tiny clothes, assemble cribs, and read the latest advice from baby books. So much time, energy and affection goes into preparing for a new little one to live in a home, but what are parents to do years down the road, when the tides shift and they find themselves caring for their own parents, sometimes in addition to their children? Many families opt to revamp, renovate or create new space within their existing homes for these aging family members. Though there isn’t exactly a “Parents-R-Us” store, adult offspring may need a little help effectively planning this space for their parents. Though there are often complicated, nebulous and sensitive issues surrounding blending younger and older generations under one roof—think finances, emotional impact and more—there are also some home design elements to consider that can help make this transition easier.
Combining Homes, Families
The ultimate blending of generations was recently completed by Dan and Tina Ruzicka, when Tina’s parents, Fritz and Pat Dolejs, were considering alternate living arrangements. They owned a threebedroom, rambler-style house on two acres, which was starting to require more upkeep than Fritz could handle on his own. At the same time, the Ruzickas were looking for a larger home, so they decided to combine their efforts and undertake an innovative project: combining two homes into one—literally!
Dan had suggested an addition could simply be added onto the rambler to make two independent spaces, and Tina’s father Fritz “jumped on the idea,” says Tina. It was the perfect solution for these families: Fritz and Pat did not need fulltime care, yet the idea of each having a home of their own with shared upkeep while being close to family was definitely appealing.
The endeavor began by gutting the existing rambler, adding a story, and adding a section off to the side. The Ruzickas live in the older part of the home, while the Dolejs’ live in the newer section. A pool was also part of the project, and both families have separate access to the pool along with their own entrances to their respective parts of the home.
A doorway separates the two homes, which makes visiting and future caregiving convenient. Tina recalls, “Just this morning, I went over in my pajamas for coffee,” which she and her parents thoroughly enjoyed. Tina and her mother also have similar decorating tastes, so their color palettes blend well when the connecting entry is open.
Having two homes under one roof has been beneficial for both families. They share the newspaper and have one mailing address, and expenses like utilities and garbage collection bills are divided. It also permits a sense of camaraderie between the generations because they can look out for each other; there is an added sense of security in the fact that someone is always around. If Dan and Tina are gone, the grandparents can help watch their 10- and 12-yearold grandchildren; if Pat is gone, Fritz can come over and, “score a free meal or watch a movie with the kids,” Tina says.
For now, the Ruzicka and Dolejs families have their own living quarters, but both thought carefully about the future in their planning. The new space has the proper clearances for wheelchairs and contains an evator, and each space has its own laundry and garage. Tina was able to consider the wishes of those who nurtured her so that they will be capable of staying in their own home indefinitely and avoid a nursing home.
In Baby Boomers Guide to Caring for Aging Parents, author Bart Astor writes, “Our goals, of course, are to live as long as possible, to be as healthy as we can, and to minimize the suffering we experience in our older years. Our goals as children of aging parents are to do what we can to help our parents realize those goals.” Dan
and Tina are making those goals a reality for Fritz and Pat.
Planning for Your Parents
While developing a whole new home may not be a feasible option for everyone, accommodating parents can be achieved on other, smaller scales. But even beginning to map out a space that meets the physical needs of an elderly parent can seem overwhelming. Betty Zaring, who works for Centra Health and is involved with Hospice of the Hills, understands the requirements of her mature clientele. She also has a personal awareness of the wishes of seniors; her own mother lives in a terrace apartment in her home.
Zaring suggests accommodations that involve one-floor living, such as her mother’s. “She has her own entrance with no steps,” says Zaring. She also advises that there are certain safety precautions, such as having the floor covered in one type of flooring to avoid unnecessary height transitions that can cause tripping.
There are also several other pieces to consider in planning. Privacy is one of them. Do your parents want their own front door and kitchen, or would an existing room in your home be adequate? Lighting is also important as eyesight diminishes with age. Overhead lighting may be accented with wall lighting and freestanding lamps. Strategically placed light switches in easy-to-reach places, such as near the bed, are essential.
Zaring also suggests some mechanical things to take into account for ease of movement, such as furnishings. “Position furniture to maximize safety,” she says. Certain seating can transition someone easily from sitting to standing, and cushiony furniture that tends to swallow a person up should not be used. Making sure the furnishings are placed correctly may seem like a daunting task, but Zaring offers, “Occupational therapists can also provide service in the home to make sure [that furniture is positioned properly].”
Other things to consider including are an intercom system, independent heating and air conditioning controls, and an easy floor plan in the kitchen so that appliances and utensils are never far from reach. Minimizing clutter is not only a safety consideration, but it also makes a space look larger, as will double doors instead of one wide door. Many things need to be considered for the comfort of the individuals who will inhabit the space so that the undertaking will be a triumph.
A Growing Trend
Ruzicka and Zaring are not alone. “Providing accommodations for a parent is an increasing requirement,” notes Ron Driskill, AIA, vice president and architect with Custom Structures in Lynchburg. “Actually, close to 35 percent of our designs include provisions for a parent who may have special needs. That parent may be someone who will move in immediately with the homeowner or possibly move in years later,” he says.
Consulting with an architect is a significant step in the process, especially if you are building from scratch. Driskill also realizes that there is a great emotional component in the process. “Designs … for a parent must consider many factors, with a paramount consideration being maintaining the individual’s self-esteem,” he says. “In most cases the design is initially viewed as providing a space for a visiting parent, while also designing that space to meet their future needs as a resident and as a senior citizen.”
It is helpful if an architect can sit down with the seniors to gather “an in-depth sense of what the client really wants,” says Driskill. Lifestyle, entertaining and personal taste should all be discussed so that the designer can truly get a feel for individual preferences along with current and potential physical requirements.
In strategizing for the future, certain aspects are planned in the design but not necessarily implemented in the initial construction. For example, grab bars may not be installed until a later date, but the walls are framed so that they can withstand the bar along with the weight the rail will eventually bear. If cabinetry is installed, it is made for easy removal to grant wheelchair access.
Driskill also states, “Other features that must be designed in from the beginning include proper and adequate circulation widths, doors that are wide enough to allow wheelchair access [and] turning radius requirements.” Wheelchairs undeniably need to be considered in the planning phase, and should be taken into account when considering things like countertop heights and access ramps.
Bathrooms are also private spaces where comfort and ease of use are especially significant. Centra Health’s Zaring suggests installing a hand-held shower head, especially if the person using it will be seated. Showers or tubs are both viable options for seniors, but grab bars are a must due to the slick surfaces. The location of controls is also a consideration, depending upon if the bather is standing or seated. Bath seats are available, or a bench can be installed to aid in safe seating. Driskill says, “The shower enclosure itself and the threshold of the shower should all be serious considerations during the design process.”
Special, unexpected touches will also make the area feel more like home. Outside enjoyment is fostered by adding a small porch to a room, which will allow for much needed fresh air and the ability to take pleasure in the outdoors. Gently lit alcoves and niches allow for careful placement of heirlooms and treasures. Allowing seniors to reminisce about their family and the full life they have enjoyed is a gift in and of itself.
Generally speaking, we will all go through the aging process. “Age is relative, but aging is not,” writes Astor in his book. In Driskill’s view, “It is comforting to see that the successful baby-boomers of the 1950s are often incorporating into their own lifestyle a place for the returning parent or parents, who helped in their success.” So whether you are forecasting for the future or preparing for the here and now, take into account the wishes of
your aging parents, and lovingly care for them, while making the most of your time together.
Creating a new space can be a fun and exciting task, yet many things must be considered when building or altering space for a senior. “While a residence is not open to the public and thereby not requiring ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) enforcement, we still use their criteria in our planning,” offers Ron Driskill, AIA, vice president and architect with Custom Structures, Inc. of Lynchburg. Following are just some of the basic height and clearance requirements under ADA based on general wheelchair dimensions of 30 inches wide by 48 inches deep. For more specific information, visit www.access-board.gov/adaag.
• Toilet seat height of 17–19 inches
• Grab bars adjacent to toilet 33–36 inches above the floor on the side and rear walls
• Turning radius of 60 inches
• Door width of 36 inches minimum
• Knee space a minimum height of 27 inches
• Counter top height of 34 inches
• Corridors are preferably 48 inches wide due to casings at doors
• Toe space 17 inches wide by 9 inches high
• Door strike side clearance varies from 12 inches to 42 inches depending on the direction of approach
• Reaching heights from 15 inches above the floor to 44–48 inches forward reach
• 20-inch counter depth
• Access into tubs and showers will vary, but a 60-inch clearance is a good rule of thumb
• Handrails should be 34–36 inches from the floor