Universal design meets life span needs of home owners
Adapting homes for 'ageing in place' is proving popular with a new generation of adults who want to remain independent as long as possible
A new generation of adults is adapting their homes to allow them to remain independent as long as possible. Some baby boomers are even planning for their eventual "ageing in place" as early as when they buy their first home or start a family.
Although often assumed to be solely for the disabled or elderly, "universal design" is a concept that advocates consideration of the long-term comfort and safety of spaces, products and services irrespective of age or ability.
"It is a design approach we should think about at the earliest possible stage, not simply after elderly people have a fall or are diagnosed with illnesses," says Kenny Kinugasa-Tsui, whose Hong Kong architectural studio Bean Buro recently renovated a 1,200-square-foot Ap Lei Chau apartment that unobtrusively integrates universal elements of flexibility, efficiency and safety into a contemporary home for a young couple.
"Many small Hong Kong apartment designs space are usually too tight for older users, with permanent joinery designs that are inflexible. Our idea was to create as much open space as possible to be inhabited by loose furniture that can be moved in the future," he says.
Integrating extra electrical wiring for sockets and data points all around a home also enables future adjustments without expensive changes to the fundamental servicing circuits.
According to Hong Kong interior designer Anji Connell, one of the easiest and quickest ways to help reduce hazards is to use non-slip mats and to avoid thick-pile carpets, which can cause people to trip.
Slipping in the home is a risk for all ages so it is a good idea to invest in non-slip floor surfaces like matt-finish tiles and stone. Where steps are unavoidable, floor lighting, movement sensitive sensors that automatically turn on the lighting, and even marking the edge of steps make them easy to see day or night.
A recent study by the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, found that addressing hazards in the home, particularly in high-risk areas like the toilet and kitchen, has a significant impact on reducing falls among the elderly. Accidents can be minimised by adding grab bars inside the bath or shower and next to the toilet.
There are plenty of inexpensive options using high-pressure suction pads, which do not damage tiles or walls and are easy to install. A particularly stylish version is Sabi Space, a system of bathroom accessories that includes a circular rubber-coated aluminium grab bar designed with the elderly in mind.
Moen offers an equally well-designed sculptural toilet roll holder that doubles as a grab bar. For bathing, walk-in showers and a hand-held shower are easier to use than an overhead shower, while baths can be made safer with non-slip mats and assistive designs like plugs that change colour when the water is too hot.
"Adding these features doesn't mean your gorgeous home needs to start looking like a nursing home," says Connell. "A little thought early on can save a lot of upheaval later."
For those investing in a new home, single-floor living and avoiding steps or raised thresholds will make life considerably easier. Wide doorways are also ideal for wheelchair users and add a sense of entrance. By the front door, a table or shelf on which to place things while finding keys is handy.
Elsewhere, front-loading clothes washing machines and dishwashers are easier for the elderly to access. Connell also suggests lowering one work counter in the kitchen for the wheelchair-bound and investing in sliding-door cupboards.
Kinugasa-Tsui says he took inspiration for the wider entrance in his Ap Lei Chau project from his grandparents' house in Japan, where the larger, more spacious traditional entrance ( genkan) incorporates storage for everyday items like bags and walking sticks.
Other small and unobtrusive design solutions include installing easy-to-reach and illuminated light switches, lever-style handles (instead of round) and lever-style taps throughout the home. Kohler has a particularly stylish range specially designed for the ageing population.
"There is nothing more fulfilling than ageing in your own home - a feeling of independence, dignity, choice and happiness," says the director of Hong Kong's Institute of Active Ageing, Teresa Tsien.
"More than 80 per cent of the older adults in Hong Kong prefer to remain living at home rather than move to a residential care facility. Even small modifications such as replacing cabinet doorknobs with pull handles will make a big difference to those with limitations to help them lead a normal life."