HACKENSACK, N.J. – When designer Marlene Wangenheim was called in to renovate a master bath, her client was looking to make the space beautiful and comfortable.
But Wangenheim, of Interiors by Design in Morristown, N.J., thought the 50-something client should think about the long term and what she might need as she aged.
The result is an expansive, three-room luxury renovation, but with a secret: It can accommodate a person who uses a wheelchair or walker. Design choices like low shelves, an oversize shower and wider doorways mean that the homeowner can keep using the room even if she loses mobility.
This kind of accessible design is expected to become more popular as the giant baby boomer generation ages. Experts say even small design choices can help people stay in their homes in their later years — which, according to polls, most want to do. And the accommodations don’t have to be obvious or look institutional.
One obstacle to the use of accessible design, however, is that a lot of homeowners resist the idea that they might ever become disabled. Often, they’ll say, “There’s nothing wrong with me; I don’t need a grab bar.”
Rather than raise the thought of disability, Wangenheim tries a softer approach, saying, “How about we make it so you don’t have to worry if you’re still in the house in 10 or 15 years?” And she paints the design choices as ideas that would make the homeowner comfortable now: for example, rounded edges so they don’t bump into sharp corners if they use the bathroom in the middle of the night.
Stephen Melman, director of economic services at the National Association of Home Builders, agreed that many accessible design choices — such as curbless showers and improved lighting — make homes safer and more comfortable for able-bodied people, too.
“If you’re bathing a young child in the tub, would it be such a bad thing to have a grab bar — and 50 years later, use it yourself?” he asked.
Companies that make these products are increasingly trying to win over customers by making them look less institutional — offering, for example, “designer grab bars” in finishes like brushed nickel or bronze, with detailing that mimics towel bars.
Maria Stapperfenne, president-elect of the National Kitchen and Bath Association, said that many products that were designed for accessibility have made it into the mainstream — for example, curbless showers, improved kitchen lights and console bathroom vanities with space underneath.
Craig Webb, editor in chief of Remodeling magazine, said that while many baby boomers hate the idea they will grow old, they tend to become more realistic about their future needs as they help their parents “and see the challenges they’re having.”
And designers say you don’t always have to spend a fortune to make a room aging-friendly; most of the choices don’t cost any more than standard versions, Wangenheim said. The pictured bath renovation cost more than $100,000 — but that was because it was a large, high-end project, not because of the accessible elements.
“We didn’t pay more to make the shower curbless, or use levered handles on the sink or countertops with rounded edges instead of pointed,” Wangenheim said.