Beverly and John Hales' kitchen has an open design, with...

Beverly and John Hales' kitchen has an open design, with countertops at varying heights for knee room underneath, allowing someone using a wheelchair to work. Credit: Handout

Fifty years ago, Beverly and John Hales bought a ranch in North Massapequa that they considered a starter home. The couple made improvements to the house as their family settled in, and they decided to stay put. Now in their 70s, the Haleses say they realize they may need to make additional changes if they want to be comfortable and safe in the home where they've spent most of their lives.

"Right now, we're very active," says Beverly, 76. "There will come a time when things will be more difficult to take care of."

While Long Island's population is growing older, many seniors are choosing the comforts of home over retirement communities and assisted living facilities. The "aging in place" movement has created a new niche in interior design.

Recently, students in the interior design, occupational therapy and health sciences-mental health counseling programs at New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury collaborated to come up with home modification ideas for older adults, like the Haleses, living across Long Island. The project allowed the students to learn about the real challenges that people face as they age, such as balance and vision problems and decreased mobility. They also tried to make the changes aesthetically pleasing.

"We want students to anticipate what aging seniors' needs are going to be," says Tobi Abramson, a psychologist who heads NYIT's Center for Gerontology and Geriatrics. "The whole idea is to help before the crisis hits. And we want them to become aging specialists in their careers."

The student teams were not limited by budgets, so some of the changes may be beyond their clients' means, but it allowed them to maximize their creativity. They recently presented their projects at the school:


ISSUES The students working with the Haleses found that both the front and back entrances to the house can be reached only by stairs. The den is 2 feet lower than the rest of the house, which can also cause accessibility issues. Carpeting throughout the house increases the possibility of falls, while the narrow hallways, doorways and bathroom would not be able to accommodate a wheelchair if ever needed.

PROPOSED CHANGES The group, which included interior design student Ashley Herz of East Meadow, suggested installing a wheelchair lift at the front of the house, raising the floor in the den and replacing the carpeting with cork floors. The team designed an open kitchen, adding cabinets with pull-down shelving and countertops at varying heights with knee room underneath, allowing someone using a wheelchair to work. In the bathroom, they proposed adding handrails, a shower seat and a floating vanity, built with lots of space underneath to accommodate a wheelchair. The color palette reflects the couple's love of the beach.

Herz and the other students employed the principles of universal design, the concept of building spaces that can be used, and enjoyed, by people of all ages and varying needs.

"The design should last the whole life of a home," Herz says.


ISSUES The owner of this home with multiple levels is an older adult with multiple sclerosis who already has some challenges. She comes inside through the garage to avoid the steps up to the front door and down to the living room. "She would first walk up two steps and down three," says interior design student Stacie Krug of East Meadow. "That's a part of life -- coming in your front door."

The homeowner limits trips to the second floor because she has to climb the steps from the living room in order to get to her stair lift. From the living room, there are three steps up to the front entrance, and from that she has to climb one more step on the bottom of the staircase where the lift sits. If she is coming from her family room, there is an additional step up to the living room/dining room level. She also has trouble seeing contrast in patterns that are the same color and enjoys baking but doesn't do it often.

PROPOSED CHANGES Aside from aligning the floor levels and adding accessible bathrooms, the group proposed installing an elevator and bringing the washing machine and dryer upstairs, with a laundry chute from the bedroom closet. They also used high-contrast materials throughout the home, including the kitchen, with different shades distinguishing the cabinets, countertops and floor. The kitchen has a compartment that stores a stand mixer that pops up to counter level. The students also suggested a lift for the backyard pool, which their client uses to exercise.

Krug says the project was a great learning experience, since her group worked with someone who already faces difficulties navigating her home.

"Working with someone who already had needs presented different challenges than with someone who was aging in place," Krug says. "We had to think of what would make her life easier, but with designing you have to think about what makes everyone's life easier."

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