Monday, October 14, 2013

Univ. of New Haven prof eyes burgeoning boomer population's housing needs

With 10,000 Americans turning 65 each day for the next 15 years, finding innovative ways for people to “age in place” is fast becoming a priority for the interior design world, said Christy Somerville, University of New Haven assistant professor of art and design. 
Somerville said it is never too early for people to design sustainable, universal living spaces that provide the kind of safety and comfort needed as people age.  Nor is it too early for UNH’s interior design students to begin thinking about it. So she recently restructured a junior-level design course to include the study of universal design and aging in place.
The redesign of the course couldn’t be more timely.  In 2012, the Connecticut state legislature convened the Task Force to Study Aging in Place, and the group made a host of recommendations including a study of state and municipal-level zoning regulations that govern the building of new accessible units, remodeling of existing units including in-law type apartments, home modifications and home sharing. An AARP national survey found that 89 percent of those surveyed wanted to remain in their own homes as they enter their 60s, 70s and beyond.  “It’s a fast-growing social issue,” Somerville said.
In the course, students experience what it is like to use wheelchairs around campus. They try   the portable lift for getting in and out of bed. They visit retirement communities and an Alzheimer’s unit to see what the residents’ housing needs are.
“Using a manual wheelchair on the ramp into the Student Center or maneuvering in and out of an accessible toilet stall is more challenging than they thought,” Somerville said. “It is always an eye opener not only using the equipment but how people respond to the people using it, usually in a helpful manner but sometimes not.”
For a semester-long project, students redesign an existing home for a client. Last year, one team used the three-story house that they were renting in West Haven to create a model transitional living space for veterans. The other teams designed for a multigenerational family, an in-law apartment, and for a family with a child with Multiple Sclerosis.
Somerville, who is a Certified Aging in Place Specialist from the National Association of Home Builders, teaches students about the technologies involved in “smart homes” and the impact of design changes small and large including:
  • Nontraditional kitchen and bathroom appliances and fixtures such as sinks that can be manually or automatically raised and lowered to various sitting and standing heights. (“You do not have to be in a wheelchair to appreciate having a place to sit while prepping food over a sink,” Somerville said.)
  • Pull-out-drawer refrigerators and freezers, which reduce bending and reaching.
  • Specialized cabinetry to improve accessibility
  • Bathtubs with a motorized side panel that raises and lowers to allow easier access
  • Use of electronics to monitor the needs of loved ones
“Addressing the topic of aging and eventual mortality is not something our American society talks about with ease,” she said, which is why she introduces the subject to her students, so this next generation of interior designers is more comfortable bringing up universal design to people at all stages of life.

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