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Universal design is barrier-free


Do you want to age in place?

According to, at least 75% of those 50 or older want to continue to live in their present homes as long as they can.

Like other emotion-charged issues and conversational taboos, discussions around navigating a multi-floor home, adding grab bars in bathrooms, smart lighting and intelligent home features as well as exterior home accessibility can all be hard talks to start.

Angela Carroll Ast said she is starting to carefully have those important conversations with clients. Ast is an interior designer and owner of ABCA Design Decorating Den Interiors in Milford.

“With clients who have said they want to commit to living in their present homes having those conversations (earlier) is really important,” she said.

Even among clients and prospects in their 60s, Ast reports many aren’t thinking about how easy it will be to manage their homes.

“It’s not something that crosses their minds,” she said.

Universal design

Universal design, also called barrier-free design, is a broad umbrella term used to make a home as accessible and comfortable to as many people as possible — regardless of their physical abilities. It’s the newer term used by construction remodelers and interior designers for what was once called aging in place.

Simple tips Ast encourages older clients to think about include:

• Consider an adjustable bed. This type of bed is a good investment to think about when it’s time for a bed replacement.

• Reconsider bold patterns on the floor. Be cautious when considering large rug or flooring patterns. These can be deceiving and begin to “look like holes or create depth perception issues for aging eyesight,” Ast said.

• Rethink tile colors and patterns. “Even tile where every other tile is a dark color,” can become problematic for aging eyes, Ast explained.

• Choose paint carefully. Ast recommends finding paint companies able to provide specialty glasses to view color choices before buying — if cataracts are an issue or could become a vision problem.

• Check peripheral vision. “Use your peripheral vision and see what vanishes and at what point” when it comes to furnishings, colors and shapes in your rooms, she said.

Dennis Gehman, owner of Gehman Design Remodeling, in Harleysville, has noticed an uptick in requests for home remodeling projects aimed at providing universal design elements to allow homeowners to age in place better.

“People starting to have mobility issues are going to bring it up. If they’re already doing a project, and they’ve had parents recently who have had issues, they are more ready to consider these (modifications),” Gehman explained.

He said extra blocking in walls for future grab bars is one way to approach new remodeling projects so structural elements are in place before they’re needed.

Lighting, apps and grab bars reports the most common home remodeling modifications include grab bars, curbless or low-entry showers and raised toilets.

From phone apps and smart tech to dial up various “lighting scenes” Gehman said voice controls tied to a smart home system may make it easier to control light and comfort controls in the home.

Voice-controlled apps can be especially helpful to those with hand dexterity issues, those with arthritis or other age-related fine motor skill issues.

Dimmer switches are another way to help control lighting.

Weight-rated towel bars can serve as grab bars for those concerned about visual aesthetics.

Outside accessibility

Getting in and out of the house can be easy to take for granted — until access becomes harder because of physical disability, illness, injury, accident or any number of medical conditions.

Wheelchair ramps can be discretely installed if there are only a few steps to enter the home.

“With one or two steps up to the porch and another into the house you can pretty easily put a ramp in with pavers and flagstone and regrade it” to camouflage or soften a ramps visual impact into the home, he said.

Wheelchair lifts can serve as a mini-elevator and can be another accessibility option when they can be subtly placed at the back of the house.

“In new construction and additions, we can take accessibility into the plan to make it look great,” Gehman said.

For some homeowners, an indoor elevator may solve accessibility concerns in multi-floor properties.

“That will require significant modification — either in an existing home or in an addition,” he said.

If you’re in the market for a home remodeling project, talk with your construction contractor and interior design professionals about which universal design modifications are possible — and right — for you.

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