Accessibility and Aging

man in a wheel chair

With the population of America’s elderly set to double between now and 2050, it is time to give real thought to the concept of accessibility. You’ll often hear of older homeowners looking to downsize, say that they are in the market for a single story home – no longer wishing to go up and down stairs. Today’s newer construction is often not only too big for their needs but it may also present real obstacles to their convenience and comfort as they age. There is also increasing desire, even demand among the elderly to stay in their homes longer, avoiding nursing homes and other assisted living institutions.

The American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Of course accessibility means many things and can be applied to any number of situations. For something to be accessible it must be without barriers. It should be adaptable and promote independent living. As a concept accessibility can apply to everything from suitable space for entry or egress to a public building, to the font size on a web page, from close captioning on television to the ability to read text on a smartphone.

While it may seem hard to believe, up until 1990 the legal aspects of access were not clearly defined. People who were physically handicapped were denied easy access to everything from public bathrooms to main streets and shops in their communities. It was the groundbreaking American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA) that sought to define what access meant and what legal provisions must be put in place and enforced to ensure those with disabilities would have access.

Enacted in 1990, the ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability and requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities. The act also specified the accessibility requirements for public accommodations for the disabled. Amended in 2008, the act was broadened to be more inclusive. Now, as we move toward a time when one in every five Americans will be 65 or older, will the notion of accessibility need to be expanded further to accommodate the elderly, and how can we best promote and enable independent living?

Aging in Place

The National Institute of Health (NIH) has created the National Institute for Aging who’s mission “seeks to understand the nature of aging and the aging process, and diseases and conditions associated with growing older, in order to extend the healthy, active years of life.” The American Society for Interior Designers (ASID) is working to educate interior designers and industrial engineers to better accommodate the needs of an aging population. Advocating what they call “Design for Active Aging,” The National Association of Home Builders’s (NAHB) Seniors Housing Council in collaboration with AARP, has introduced a program for certification for Aging in Place Specialists to work with architects, builders and interior designers to look at how homes may be properly modified to allow aging in place. Of course this challenge extends outside the home as well – to public places such as restaurants, health care facilities, retail and the workplace.

A New Field Opens Up

In its “Design for Aging in Place Toolkit” the ASID not only advocates for elderly Americans who desire to live out their lives at home, they point out that this challenge offers a major opportunity for professionals in design. They provide insight into the psychology of an aging populations based on their particular generation, Baby Boomers, Post War Generation, WWI Generation, and the Depression Generation. And, they focus on the competencies, and the soft skills required to work with these groups to help improve their lives.

With approximately 1.3 million seniors living in nursing homes in this country, the average cost of a private room $83,000 with cost rising 4% yearly, and10,000 Baby Boomers turning 65 every day, the need for innovation has never been more critical.

More sources of information:

National Institute for Aging: NIA
American Society for Interior Design: Design for Aging

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