According to this recent study by Pew Research Center, almost 64 million Americans live in multigenerational homes—nearly 20% of the population. It makes sense from a financial standpoint, and not just because of rising long-term care costs for aging parents. Young millennials are also taking longer to leave the nest, creating a need for homes that keep families together while also comfortably apart.
Enter universal design. Defined as the design of products and environments to be widely usable by all people without need for adaptation or specialization, universal design lends itself perfectly to multigenerational living. Stepless entrances, open plans, curbless showers, multiple master bedrooms, and access to privacy are all features that functions well through every stage of life, often simultaneously.
Open Floor Plans
More than just a modern aesthetic, open floor plans—or interior circulation, as identified by the Center for Universal Design—improve sight lines, air flow, communication, light distribution, and general movement. Open floor plans are optimized when the major functions of a home occur on the same level; the kitchen, living room, at least one bedroom, and at least one bathroom should be accessible on the ground floor. This “barrier-free” living also lends itself well to temporary modifications; installing barn doors on either side of wide entrances, for instance, can easily close off sections of an open floor plan when more privacy is needed.
Wide, Stepless Entrances
From wheelchairs to strollers to anyone carrying armfuls of groceries, stepless entrances make the ins and outs of life that much easier. Not only are they easier to clean and maintain than steps and ramps, but they are also fairly weather-resistant and safer in wet, icy, and snowy conditions (otherwise known as Boston). Creating wider spaces on either side of the door make maneuvering (and furniture moving) much smoother as well.
A recent Houzz trend study noted that one in four homeowners remodeling their master bathrooms opted to replace their old tub with a larger walk-in shower. Curbless showers not only beautifully update a bathroom, but also transition smoothly from the bathroom to washing area, eliminating the need to step over slippery surfaces. Add an adjustable showerhead, and you have a shower that can serve a seated adult just as well as a smaller child while maintaining their dignity and independence.
Bathroom Handrails and Grab Bars
“There’s a reason it’s called ‘universal design’ and not just ‘design for the aging,’” said Jeff McLinden, President of JM Construction. “We all could use an extra hand every once in a while.” A well-placed grab bar or handrail can function as a sturdy towel bar when not in use, and it won’t give way the minute you need it.
Multiple Master Suites
When an aging parent or a live-in caretaker moves in, it’s not always preferable—or possible—to give up the master suite, especially if it’s on an upper floor. A ground floor master bedroom that keeps universal design elements in mind allows guests of every age to have the independence, schedule, and privacy they need while still helping them feel connected to the larger family home.
High-Functioning Finishing Touches
The National Association of Home Builders also has a few tips to maximize the general accessibility of every room in the home without compromising your style. Lever door knobs and rocker light switches, for instance, are easier to use when you lack a full range of motion (or your hands are full). Well-lit rooms are easier to clean, maintain, and maneuver around. Low, accessible kitchen storage makes finding thing easier. Non-slip surfaces help everyone stay on their feet and don’t require the protection of rugs (which can also be a slip hazard).
Some features of universal design aren’t always possible given the often historic nature of our New England homes. Being informed of these general guidelines will be important when considering adapting your home to care for aging parents while also making room for your adult children.
“Perhaps the biggest benefit of universal design is its innate flexibility,” says McLinden. “A well-designed multi-generational home can be adapted easily to fit any family’s needs without a major overhaul, regardless of its ages and stages. And anything that can improve a home’s benefit to its homeowner is a good thing.”
Are you considering having your parents move in with your family? Learn about home additions and renovations for aging parents here.