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Universal design for all ages and abilities

When her husband Arthur underwent several spinal surgeries last year and was recuperating in the hospital, Mariam Eisenberg knew she had to make some design changes to her Jericho, N.Y., home before he returned.

Her wheelchair-bound husband wouldn't be able to navigate the two sets of stairs in her house, so he would need to live on the first floor, which only offered a small half-bathroom.

With the help of a knowledgeable contractor, the 64-year-old Eisenberg converted the bathroom into a fully accessible bathroom by eliminating a laundry room and taking space from the garage.

"I wanted something that was attractive to my husband. I didn't want it to look like a hospital bathroom," says Eisenberg, a senior vice president at a life insurance company.

The finished product: an elegant bathroom that could star in an interior design magazine. It doubles as the guest bathroom and visitors have no idea it's universally designed, Eisenberg said.

Sean Vance, the acting director at North Carolina State University's Center for Universal Design, explains, "Universal design is the design of products and environments to be useable by all people, taking into consideration varying physical differences and capabilities of people."

As it relates to homes, universal design creates a home with features that give independence to a wide range of people in a household, even as a family grows, Vance says.

For example, a young married couple should consider who will be coming in and out of their home as time wears on: young children, teenage children with sports injuries, grandparents and others.

Often, universal home design conjures up images of handicap bathroom handles and sterile hospital rooms, but proponents say it can improve the lives of all people regardless of age or ability.

And it can still look good.

"A lot of people think that making a house more accommodating will make the house less stylish, but there are many (universally designed) homes that are beautiful and still work well for people young or old, tall or short, or if they have any kind of limitations," says Wendy Jordan, author of "Universal Design for the Home: Great Looking, Great Living Design for All Ages, Abilities, and Circumstances."

Homeowners are starting to warm to the concept, especially Baby Boomers, of which 10,000 are turning 60 every day. Last Year, an American Institute of Architects survey found that nearly three-quarters of 500 architecture firms said that homeowners were asking for greater accessibility within the home through wider hallways, fewer steps and single-floor design. That was up from 66 percent the year before.

The National Association of Home Builders also reported that 63 percent of upscale builders and 56 percent of average home builders believe they'll see a growing trend toward universal design over the next decade as Baby Boomers advance in age and decline in health.

While many homeowners start taking universal design elements into consideration as retirement nears, AARP suggests making these changes as soon as possible.

"There's no time like the present," said Elinor Ginzler, senior vice president for livable communities at AARP. "All of these changes will make your life easier starting immediately."

A homeowner can start with quick, do-it-yourself fixes. For example, replace all round doorknobs with lever handles ($15-$70 each). Not only will this accommodate young children or those suffering from arthritis in the hands, it also will come in handy for a mom carrying too much laundry or a dad weighed down by several grocery bags.

Similarly, swap out cabinet knobs in the kitchen and bathrooms with pull handles ($2-$30 each), which are easier to grip. Add under-cabinet lighting ($10-$50) to brighten countertops in the kitchen and office.

In general, minimize shadows which obscure vision and maximize light everywhere. Install adjustable rods and pullout shelving in closets ($100-$300 for closet systems) and cabinets ($30-$80) so any one of any height can use them.

To avoid slip-and-falls, eliminate area rugs or secure them with double-sided rug tape ($12). Also arrange furniture and belongings, so there are no obstructed pathways. Place a bench in your shower (shower bench $39-$75) and inside and outside of your entryway. It can be used as a seat or a spot to rest supplies or packages.

Outside, grade the yard to slope up to the house, so there's no need for steps. If you're a gardener, build raised flower beds so they can be reached easily. For heavy duty renovations like building wider doorways and halls or renovating a bathroom or kitchen, call an expert.

The NAHB offers a searchable directory of Certified Aging-in-Place Specialists nationwide. The list includes remodelers, builders, architects, consultants and suppliers.

When talking with your expert, consider countertops of different heights in the kitchen and bathroom to accommodate a person sitting or standing.

Add handle bars ($40-$60) in the bathrooms that can double as towel racks and install toilets that are at seat height ($108-$400). Swap out the regular showerhead ($10-$75) for a handheld one, so anyone regardless of age, height or ability, can maneuver it.

Put railings ($11-$15) on both sides of the staircase, which will even help those suffering from a temporary injury like a dislocated shoulder, AARP's Ginzler says. And replace old windows that require lifting to open with ones that can open with a crank or slide to the side.

"By making these changes now, if you end up with an unfortunate accident, you won't have a problem getting around your house" she says.

Unfortunately, Eisenberg's husband only enjoyed the universally designed bathroom for three weeks before returning to the hospital for more surgeries. After rehab, however, she expects the bathroom will come in handy again.

"My husband told me that of all the things I've done for him over the last year and a half, that was the nicest thing I had done," Eisenberg says. "It made him feel comfortable to come home."

Related Links: www.aarp.org/families/home_design/universaldesign/ www.design.ncsu.edu/cud/

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