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The end of the Peter Pan home - but shouldn't tech in the home be more universal?

Get this. A Dallas article that advised homeowners to Senior-proof their house so you don't have to move later says universal design is now Hot. The article cited an AARP study that 90% of those over 50 want to stay put in their homes, but noted that most homes in this country are 'Peter Pan' homes, designed for people who will never grow old -- with overly narrow doorways, dangerous carpets and doorsills, terrorizing bathrooms, and inaccessible upper floors.

How times have changed. With a groundswell of baby boomers heading towards seniordom, adding universal design features now adds to the value of the home. So for those who like to plan ahead, like the Dallas couple in the article, incorporating universal design elements in a remodel makes sense to do sooner rather than later.

Universal design used to have a limited audience -- but not any more. "Stepless entries, home elevators, wide passageways, adjustable cabinets, curbless showers, and other UD features represent now the fastest-growing segment of the residential remodeling industry," say John Hockenberry at the MIT Media Lab. So no surprise that "there was a 74 percent increase over the last year in inquiries from prospective clients interested in making their homes more accessible." The Dallas article quoted Therese Crahan, executive director of the National Association of Home Builders' remodelers group, which has now trained more than 3000 contractors as 'Certified Aging in Place Specialists (CAPS). 

We want homes that use universal design principles. The principles of universal design are excellent (flexible, intuitive, accessible, error-tolerant, etc). And so CAPS-trained designers make an obstacle course house into a universal design home in which to live comfortably now and age successfully later. That's good, it's a glimmer of goodness for contractors in an otherwise very bleak time. And how nice that these changes are value-boosting.

But how about connecting the aging in place homeowner to the outside world? 2009 was the year in which broadband access for the 65+ demographic doubled from 19% to 30%. For baby boomers, make that from 50% to 61%. What are people doing with all this connectivity? Well, according to Forrester's just-out survey, 70% of those 55 and older use social technologies once per month -- to connect themselves to others outside their home. Older adults also look online for health-related advice -- 31% of all Internet usage is spent accessing more than 62,000 health-related websites.Or maybe they wish to purchase a product, find a restaurant, get directions, get a job, or watch a video sent by a family member. High-speed internet is as essential to accessibility as the widened doorway -- in fact it is the virtual widened doorway to information and the outside world.

So let's think about universal design principles applied to technology in the home.  First of all, check to see if the owner has a good combined plan for high speed internet access and telephone, maybe a plan that includes TV. Are there Internet jacks in every room near surfaces where a laptop can be easily used? Does the home have wireless, so that laptops become portable? Are household members able to easily share and physically access a printer?  Are shelves for storing supplies (like paper) near the printer? Can chargers for cell phones, smart phones, and computer be easily plugged in and accessed without tripping over them? How about a touch screen and enlarged font software for the laptop or computer in the kitchen? 

Think long-term, the way designers think about doorways. For those owners who are afraid of computers, can the home designer recommend a local technology services provider? A good set up now will be ready later if telehealth monitoring, home chronic disease self-testing, passive activity monitors, fall detection devices, in-home care robots, environmental sensors are ever needed. All will be more effective if the house has wireless home network to collect information and that the information can be transmitted quickly and easily via broadband. And even houses of older seniors should be tech-updated to accommodate those highly connected 100-year-olds surveyed in the Evercare study. Tech-phobic today doesn't imply tech-phobic tomorrow.

The future will make the present look technologically uninhabitable. In our baby boomer aging future, the vast majority of us will expect to experience web cameras, virtual doctor visits (via camera), Internet-based telephones, voice recognition security systems, GPS location cell phones, video family get-togethers, home fitness programs and even more music downloaded to our MP3 players.  Our homes will be our tech-enabled castles -- easy to traverse in every way.


Thanks for this timely post. I just wish that everyone in Maui County government could read it. Maui is way way behind the curve in recognizing the need for universally designed building practices and codes. Similarly, the understanding and adoption rate of life enhancing aging in place technologies is zero.

The age wave is falling upon our community....the need for change is undeniable ...no one has the courage to transform our building practices and update our aging in place policies ...and our aging population is already suffering from this lack of local leadership.



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