Good design makes sense

Who doesn’t enjoy the pleasure of a long soak in a warm bath after a vigorous morning walk, an afternoon of raking the garden, or simply as a reward at the end of a day? Add some soft music, a dash of bubble bath, a good book and the world’s a rosy place.

Imagine how much more pleasurable a good soak would be if it were in a cushioned tub that gets even softer as it fills with water.

This dreamy stuff is all part of a ‘renaissance’ of design aimed at making life easier and safer for 50-plus Canadians. The padded tub is part of a grand ‘Design for Older Living’ dedicated in part to meeting the demands of the older boomer generation, now approaching 55.

Manufacturers are becoming aware that Canadians over 50 are determined to keep a mobile lifestyle and are very interested in stylish, functional products aimed at perpetuating that lifestyle. This group of products includes everything from the aforementioned soft bathtub with its cushioned sides and bottom and brass whirlpool jets and fittings, to a one-handed pepper grinder.

Demographic support
Today, one in four Canadians is aged 50-plus. Fifteen years from now, the ratio will one in three.  And increasingly, manufacturers are offering them ease and convenience with style-everywhere from the bathroom, the kitchen and the home office to the automobile and beyond.

While these imaginative yet simple products must accommodate the needs of people with failing sight and hearing and other physical limitations, they must at the same time be accessible to the widest range of users.

Good design makes good sense for everyone. A garden rake with a curving handle has been specifically designed to prevent back injuries and strain. It certainly makes sense for the 50-plus gardener. In fact, it makes sense for anyone, at any age, wanting to avoid back problems and repetitive stress injuries.

Other useful outdoor tools designed for easy handling include:

  • Lightweight watering wands that attach to a hose for hanging pots and baskets
  • High-pressure water-powered weeder that loosens an entire weed by blasting a hole beside the offending root.

Bathroom design
The concept of universal design was impressively reflected by more than 200 futuristic products at a recent exhibition at the Design Exchange on Toronto’s Bay Street where the soft bathtub was a conversation piece. 

Elise Hodson, the exchange’s education co-ordinator, says many people came with the idea that the Unlimited by Design exhibition was for people with disabilities “but left with the idea that good design can actually make a difference for everybody.” 

This trend of good, classical designing is both practical and fun.  As the Unlimited by Design show demonstrated, today there are: 

  • Bathrooms with easy-to-control faucets and shower heads
  • Temperature-regulated taps
  • Tilting non-fog mirrors
  • Shower seats and attractive grab bars that don’t have an institutional look.

A height-adjustable vanity accommodates the tall and the tiny, as well as people in wheelchairs.  There are easy-grip toothbrushes, flexible razors with suction cups that stick to shower walls, long-handled sponges, ergonomic hairbrushes, combs and backscratchers, and a toilet that doubles as a bidet. 

Bathroom falls
The bathroom presents the number one area of concern for many senior adults, particularly those who have suffered an injury, says Victor Helfand, 52, president of Barrier Free Architecturals in Toronto.

“Getting in and out of the bathtub and getting on and off the toilet are two major concerns,” he says.  Many seniors look for a bigger bath-sized shower with grab bars, or a bathtub with lift-assistance or a grab-bar system with a step.
Dr. Geoff Fernie, director of the Centre for Studies in Aging at Sunnybrook Health Science Centre in Toronto, agrees.  In fact, with user safety in mind, Sunnybrook has developed an accessible fibreglass tub with built-in gripping surfaces, a built-in handrail and a lip on the side for sponge bathing.  The tub sells for about $2,000.

Another Sunnybrook invention is the ‘toilevator’-a simply installed base that goes under a toilet to raise the height of the seat, replacing the usual unsightly insert, and costs only $99.95.  “The concept of universal design is that everything should be constructed so that anyone can use it, whatever their abilities. It should also be attractive and should fit into one’s normal environment,” says Fernie.

European styling
Helfand notes that bathrooms in Europe are designed with more accessibility than their North American counterparts. While our bathrooms have tubs and showers  ‘built in’ to compartments, the European trend is toward an open tiled area with sink, toilet and shower, with optional freestanding bathtubs.
Conveniently located grab bars lift up and down, twist, and rotate out of the way for both shower and toilet use.  There’s even a swinging toilet roll. 

And, says Sunnybrook’s Dr. Fernie, broken hips are the most common cause of accidental death in older Canadians.  “We have five times as many people come into our emergency rooms because of a falling accident as we do from a car accident,” he says. “To help reduce the incidence of falls, we’re trying to produce environments that are safer for people.”

What to seek
“If you’re building-or looking for a home, condo or apartment-you should ask yourself: how is this dwelling going to meet my future needs? If you’re 50, imagine what your needs may be in 20 or 30 years,” Helfand advises.

He suggests that those building a new home or renovating an existing dwelling think about certain structural changes that may be useful in the future, such as plywood around a bathtub area to reinforce the walls so that grab bars can be installed at a later date.

“That extra sheet of plywood and half-hour of additional labour can cost less than 100 dollars instead of the $2,000 you’ll need to redo the entire wall 20 years from now,” he says.