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03/01/2006

ASID Update: Getting in Front of the Broom

By Robert Wright, FASID
Designers should prepare now for changes to the practice of design brought on by an aging population.

 

By Robert Wright, FASID

It is now official. The first members of the Baby Boomer generation have turned 60. When these individuals were born, in 1946, few Americans were expected to live past their 60s. Many would not live long enough to collect a Social Security check. In the popular mind, the idea of old age conjured up pictures of ending one's life confined to a rocking chair in "the old folks' home."

If you follow the news at all, you know that the industrialized world is experiencing an aging revolution. People are living longer than ever before, and most will be living better. Life expectancy is now in the mid-80s for both men and women. In the United States, persons turning 50 today likely will have nearly half of their lives ahead of them. Today's "mature" Americans are, in general, healthier and more active than their peers in previous generations, and many have considerably more financial security. Although they make up about one-third (35 percent) of the population, this group controls three-fourths (77 percent) of the financial assets of our country and have among the highest levels of discretionary income. Some of that income will be spent on making their lives—including their homes and places of work—as comfortable and safe as possible as they grow older and their needs change. Professional design solutions will help put older Americans' minds at ease, and these people are turning to their interior designers for guidance and expertise.

My own interior design practice has seen a shift in client demographic. More of our clients are older and come to us to help them plan for their future needs by adapting their homes into more universally designed spaces (see sidebar for more). According to a recent ASID survey, most Americans (82 percent) want to live in their homes even as they require assistance and care. For one of our clients with a multi-level home, we developed a master plan so that the home could function independently on one floor. The client's goal was to "downsize" without leaving her home. This was achieved by redesigning two small, un-accessible bathrooms into one universally designed bathroom, master planning an office that could evolve into a bedroom, and re-evaluating the layout of the kitchen for ease of use. These solutions provided for our client a sense of confidence that she could live a long and happy life in the home she did not want to leave.

Another recent kitchen remodel, for a client with osteoporosis concerns, addressed easy accessibility, range of motion and comfort factors with design solutions, including lowered counters and resilient cork floors. Our other recent bathroom designs have applied universal design principles throughout the spaces for clients aware that a disability, either temporary or permanent, can occur at any time in one's life. Much time was spent with these clients discussing ergonomics, materials, maintenance and lighting. What I found interesting on all of these projects is that these were requests that came from our very informed clients that were planning for their future housing needs, just as they might be planning their future financial security and healthcare.

These same clients will be working longer, also. With birthrates declining and workers postponing retirement until they are in their 70s and 80s, the U.S. workplace is also aging. In this decade, we will see the highest growth rate in the U.S. workforce among those workers aged 55 to 64, and 40 percent of our workforce will be older than 45 by the end of this year. This group of workers will play an important role in the future success of our economy, and employers will need to address what will make these workers safe, secure and productive in the workplace. Corporations will turn to interior designers as the experts for multi-generational work environments. Acoustics, ergonomics and lighting will be evaluated for effectiveness for the older worker. Office planning will change as older workers negotiate with their employers for flexible hours and telecommuting, both being desirable work alternatives for the older worker. Other workplace innovations will be addressed to accommodate older workers who are looked upon as committed employees integral to their employers' success.

Interior designers are becoming more aware of the special needs of our aging population. We constantly are challenged to design better spaces for people where they live, work and play. As we plan into every interior design solution our clients' short term functional and aesthetic requests, we must also anticipate their long term needs as they grow older. It is the trained, professional interior designer who can provide solutions to enhance access, mobility and ease of use without compromising the appearance of the space.

A baby boomer turns 50 every 7.5 seconds, and the 50-plus population will more than double over the next 35 years. With staggering statistics like these, we need to prepare now for how this "age wave" will affect our future practice by providing the best educational and advanced-training opportunities for interior designers.

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    ASID President Robert Wright, FASID, is an award-winning interior designer, with a focus on office and residential design. He is a principal of Bast/Wright Interiors, Inc. in San Diego, Calif. ASID can be reached at (202) 546-3480 or asid@asid.org, and on the Web at www.asid.org.
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