As a homeowner, you weigh the roof materials that will last decades. You seek out extra bedrooms for the kids or guests you plan to have, and you wonder if a kitchen cabinet color will seem dated by 2025. But far too few people consider perhaps the most critical aspect of planning, a topic so un-fun that many designers have developed politely manipulative strategies to broach it.
“Nobody wants to hear, ‘When you get really old in a couple of years, you’re going to want grab bars,’ ” says Brooklyn designer Jennifer Morris. “You have to prepare people in a way that they can hear it. ‘When your mother comes to visit, will she be able to get into the shower?’ Little examples like that get people thinking about decisions that can make their home more accessible...in the context of somebody else.”
The pandemic has forced us all to take stock of the spaces we’re in, and find ways to transform them into the homes of our dreams—in other words, the ones we’ll grow old in. Studies have found that seniors not only value staying in their homes as they age, there are also significant benefits to doing so—from cost savings in medical care to better health outcomes, emotionally and physically. Organizations like the Living in Place Institute and the National Association of Home Builders offer training for industry professionals on both design interventions and ways to approach the fraught subject with clients.
The bathroom is often the first room that comes up with designers who specialize in aging in place, as research shows it’s typically the first room in our home to fail us. “If you start to feel like you can’t clean yourself—especially as you get older and lose mobility, reach, and stretch—bidets and Washlets take that [concern] away,” Morris says. “It’s a conversation your parents won’t want to have with you, and you might not even want to have with your spouse.” That said, it’s an important one, considering struggles with hygiene are a big reason Americans relocate to assisted living facilities.
For designers, part of the job is educating clients about why certain choices will help them in the long term—but many find that it’s often easiest to simply leave out design options that don’t facilitate aging in place. “I’m just not going to show [my clients] an option that I feel would be unattractive, unwise, or unsafe,” says Jamie Gold, a Southern California- based kitchen and bath designer and author of Wellness by Design. Designer Heather Bates of Washington, D.C., points clients toward less slippery alternatives to marble flooring during bathroom renovations. These days, she’s also recommending antimicrobial countertops and no-touch faucets.
At the very least, Morris builds the potential for future interventions into the bones of the house—reinforced areas for grab bars to come, or an extra outlet for a Washlet or bidet. Adding age into the initial design equation means you don’t have to deal with it down the line. “If you’re not ready to do these things, I get it,” she says. “But I ask, ‘Would you rather spend $500 now or $2,000 to have the tile ripped out later?’ ”
Not surprisingly, solutions that support homeowners and their guests regardless of age or physical challenges are often better for everyone. Carpet runners on stairs are great for acoustics, but can also help avert falls; old-fashioned chair rails protect wallcoverings from scuffs, and also assist with spatial awareness. In the kitchen, induction cooktops prevent burns and are safer for forgetful homeowners. Wall ovens are harder for children to reach—and keep adults of all ages from bending over to lift a heavy cassoulet. “What I’ve learned, both in my design practice and my life, is that tips I was sharing with my older clients can really benefit people of all ages,” Gold says. “If it’s easy to roll into a barrier-free home with a wheelchair, it also helps someone with a stroller or a roller bag.”
The bottom line: The forever home isn’t just about decorating with timeless style—it’s about designing with time in mind. “I’m all about beauty,” Morris says. “But if it doesn’t make you live in a better way, it’s not enough.”
A (brief!) list of remodeling considerations from the National Association of Home Builders.
Follow these rules today, and live more happily tomorrow.