Home can be a dangerous place for an old person, in a way that rarely makes headlines. Falls at home are a significant reason for hospitalization among seniors the world over. But not much seems to change in the way we design or manage Indian homes.
Yet a living environment that enables an older person to feel independent, in control and gives him or her pleasure should be the goal of all home design, whether a professional designer is involved or not.
Also read earlier Bodylines columns
A significant number of elderly Indians live with their children. In homes designed for “normal” (read young, able-bodied) adults. Many older people prefer to age in the same space they enjoyed as youths, because of their attachment and established social networks. Yet most architects and designers are not trained to address the needs of the elderly. Of course, people constantly make small modifications in response to concrete physical problems. And yet, even in a developed country such as Australia, a study (by Susan E. Carter et al, published in Age and Ageing in 1997) found that 80% of the homes older people live in have at least one hazard and nearly 40% have up to five.
Physical hazards of age
The first step towards safety and comfort is to acknowledge that every aspect of home design and furnishing has implications for both. Reduced strength and flexibility, weakened eyesight, common problems of old age, such as arthritis, leave many unable to do things they once did easily: Sit on low furniture or on the ground, negotiate steps, quickly get in and out of elevators with automatic doors, reach into shelves too high or too low.
Certain spaces are more sensitive in this regard than others. The Australian study found bathrooms disproportionately hazardous compared with other rooms. In India, the bathroom is a wet room, a crucial factor. We make many complex movements in this cramped and cluttered space, movements that get more challenging with age. The penchant for shiny, smooth bathroom floors such as in magazines, with polished stone or mirror-finish tile, increases the risk of injury. And with the many protrusions in our path—taps, ledges, cabinets, buckets, raised thresholds—a wide variety of injuries from falling or banging await the elderly. Safety measures such as grab bars near bath and WC are unfortunately not common in Indian bathrooms.
The comfort of safety
Safety measures are also related to comfort. Storage that does not require too much twisting, bending or reaching ensures that people do not challenge their bodily limits too often, inviting trouble. Easy-to-use storage also reinforces the user’s sense of capability and independence, and hence his/her psychological well-being and confidence.
Comfort shades very easily into pleasure. If the bucket is raised off the floor safely (on a stable wide stool, for instance), someone with a stiff back might discover new joy in their daily bath. A low window lights the floor better, and may provide greater contact with the outside world for those who can sit beside it but not venture out. Flooring that does not become too cold in winter (such as real terracotta tiles) provides immeasurable comfort to an arthritic person during his/her most trying months.
While general guidelines for design that’s sensitive to the elderly are available, apt design solutions are likely to be unique to people and spaces. Like all users, the elderly often have the most important answers, if only you ask. A researcher in Turkey did ask and was given some fairly up-to-date ideas: remote-controlled shelving, lit doorbells, motion-activated lighting. The technological route is not the only one. There were also simple ideas such as entrance doors without steps, wide doors, pull-out work surfaces and the good old grab bar.
You don’t have to wait for old age to make your home more inclusive. Homes safe and pleasurable for the elderly are safer and more comfortable for every age.
The author is a Goa-based architect and writer.
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