Aging In Place (Gracefully)

Marshall Erb Design breaks down the subtle (and not so subtle) design moves for ensuring that your forever home supports your golden years. 

By Elise Hofer Shaw

Non-slip surfaces and built-in bench seating are a part of Marshall Erb Design’s aging-in-place plan for bathrooms. (Photo credit: Architectural Digest)

What is aging in place? Glad you asked. Basically it’s the desire to grow old gracefully at home for as long as possible. And it’s that long-term, proactive thinking that has given birth to a niche style of interior design called “aging in place design.” Also known as “universal design,” aging in place design focuses on creating environments that are safe and comfortable for people of any age. Whatever you call it—universal design, accessibility, aging in place, or simply living in place—the goal is to make life easier for people of different ages and abilities via smart and savvy design.

And when it’s executed with style and expertise, aging in place design can offer ease of movement within spaces that are still welcoming and aesthetically pleasing. “It’s not just about handrails and widened entryways that can one day fit a walker or a wheelchair,” says Marshall Erb, principal and lead designer at Marshall Erb Design in Chicago. “Yes, accommodations need to be made to support the physical limitations that come with age, but these necessities can be installed with style and ingenuity so that they present as gorgeous amenities instead of basic appointments plucked from a nursing home.”

According to a recent study by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, fewer than half of those age 55 or older and planning to remodel in the next three years paid attention to making their homes age-proof—and, according to Erb, therein lies the problem. “Thinking ahead about aging in place, and coming up with an evergreen design plan that will age with you, will not only add value to your home, it will also save you money later because you will be able to delay at-home care or assisted living by up to five years [on average]. Plus, having the freedom to live at home as long as possible is priceless.”

Here are the main things to consider if an aging-in-place design plan is the right plan for you…

The TOTO Neorest NX Series intelligent toilet is built for comfort.

MASTER THE MAIN LEVEL

There are certain things in life that you never think will be hard until they are, like getting out of a low, deep couch or climbing a flight of stairs 20 times a day. That’s why it’s critical to think about your forever layout before you buy. “If the home of your dreams comes complete with a first-floor primary suite, then you are quite literally golden,” says Erb. “If not, take a look at the property’s possibilities for an addition down the road.” An accessible addition in the Chicago suburbs should be a minimum of 600 square feet and will cost roughly $180,000 depending on your upgrades like a buffer zone hallway (so you don’t just pop open a door and look into a bedroom), an adjacent first-floor laundry room, and a spacious ensuite. “That sounds high until you compare it with the cost of five years in assisted living,” informs Erb.

For kitchens, ADA (American Disability Act) guidelines require at least 60 inches of clearance between opposing cabinets, walls, or appliances. (Photo credit: Marshall Erb Design)

MAKE DESIGN CHOICES THAT ENDURE

When designing a home that’s aces for aging in place, interior designers have a lengthy punch list. Some of the more obvious checklist items include the aforementioned widening of entryways, non-slip surfaces and easy access storage solutions. And as any interior designer worth their salt will tell you, particular attention must be paid to kitchens and bathrooms. “For example, integrated kitchens are all the rage right now,” says Erb. “But what no one tells you is that while embedded hardware is très chic because it gives a clean, seamless look, certain components like the refrigerator and those stacked, pullout pantries can get really heavy when filled with bulk items like gallons of milk or sacks of flour. I know a lot of middle-aged people who struggle to muscle open their refrigerators with sunken hardware.” In the bathrooms, space planning and material selections are paramount. “Leave the bathtub upstairs for the kids and grandkids,” says Erb. “Instead, opt for a large walk-in shower with non-slip tile and built-in bench seating for the primary en suite. That way you can have a comfortable place to sit while showering, one that can double as a place to rest your foot for shaving or scrubbing. I also recommend a recessed shelf so that you never have to bend down for products.” 

CAMOUFLAGE THE SENIOR MOMENTS

Accessibility comes in all shapes and sizes, and according to Erb, tends to include all manner of unbecoming style sins. “I’m speaking of industrial-looking metal hand bars, plastic risers for toilets, or electric stair lifts. At some point some of these things become necessities, but over the years we’ve come up with creative solutions for concealing such aids with beautiful, intuitive design—or to make them obsolete.” A few tricks of the trade that Marshall Erb Design has been known to employ include sourcing taller, comfort-height toilets from cutting-edge brands like Kohler and TOTO, using designer grab bars to replace unsightly hospital-style bars, and including elevators in every project. Speaking of convenience, Erb is partial to swivel chairs in both the living and dining rooms. “Swivel chairs and stools are a smart furniture selection for aging in place that can make a world of difference,” says Erb. “Not having to push in and pull out chairs becomes one less thing to physically manage. And there are a ton of lovely options on the market today from brands like Baker, Holly Hunt and A. Rudin that are as stylish as they are functional.”

In addition to rich 360-degree audio for on-demand music, HomePod Mini works with your Apple devices for features like Intercom, setting reminders and more. 

GET SMART FOR EASY LIVING

No one expects someone in their eighties to be hip to the latest home technology trends. But there is something to be said for making life a little easier on yourself if you can minimize the setup and troubleshooting headaches. “I love the HomePod Mini from Apple [$99 each],” says Erb. “If you own and can operate an iPhone, you can use these pods pretty effortlessly—and the setup is super simple. Just pepper them throughout the house and you can use voice command for things like playing music, adding items to a grocery list, turning off and on lights, turning up and down the thermostat, setting reminders throughout the day, and even communicating via an intercom feature to other rooms in the house to cut down on having to walk back and forth. At the end of the day, if something as simple as on-demand music is going to make me happy when I’m in my seventies or eighties, then you can bet your bippy that I will have it. And so are my clients.”