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The age of ease

Products are moving toward easy-to-use design with an eye on aging baby boomers.

May 07, 2011|Mary MacVean

LAS VEGAS — A grab bar for the bathroom shower that makes you think "pretty" before "old." A kitchen drawer for trash that makes you think "wow" before "useful." A kitchen faucet with temperature presets that says "looks elegant" before "avoids burns."

And then there were the toilets. Technology -- certainly for fun and in some cases to impress -- was everywhere at the Kitchen & Bath Industry Show at the convention center here last week. But often behind the LED-lighted musical commodes and cool automatic faucets was an effort to make the activities of daily life easier for all ages and abilities without sacrificing aesthetics.

There's been a "night and day difference" in the last five years in what's being offered to enable people to "age in place" without feeling that their home has been turned into a hospital, said Mary Jo Peterson, whose Connecticut-based interiors firm specializes in accessible design.

"Manufacturers are waking up and saying, 'I need to do something'" to be part of the market for universal design, a concept that refers to designing for people of every age and ability, said Peterson, who spoke at a seminar at the show.

Salice was among several companies that displayed automated cupboard doors that require no handles. Europeans have been using them for years, but only recently have they become popular in this country, said Dennis Bean, a Salice sales official.

Just changing the color inside a drawer makes its contents easier to see. Lighted floor tiles, induction stoves and oversize shower stalls also were shown.

Installing LED strips around medicine cabinets or in drawers and cabinets, a trend at the show, also can help people see what's inside more easily. LEDs don't get hot, and they're discreet and efficient, said Daryl Nauman, regional account manager for Hafele, a high-end kitchen hardware company.

Hafele's booth held a number of clever solutions, including a step stool (list price $180) that can be installed under a cabinet; with a light kick, it slides out for use.

Drawer Box Specialties, a company in Orange, Calif., introduced its Helping Hands trash drawer (sold to cabinet makers for $525) that opens by touch and closes automatically.

"I'm getting older, and I don't have the strength I had. And it's not going to get better," said Chief Executive Glen Blankenship, who is 70 and created it in part with himself in mind.

Kohler showed its Elevance Rising Wall Bath. One side of the tub can be raised and lowered, with minimum pressure. Another tub had a protruding seat that someone could use to transfer himself from a wheelchair, ideally without help. Or a parent could sit there to wash children.

Delta introduced a battery-operated faucet that senses the body's electric current and turns on if a human is within four inches. It turns off immediately with a touch or in a minute if you walk away -- good for young and old alike, spokeswoman Mary McCullough said.


There's no question that the aging of the baby boom generation has fueled many such design innovations. People who no longer can get at pots and pans easily or set out a spread for a party might feel less confident and less inclined to entertain. That starts to isolate them.

Not so long ago, Peterson said, colleagues would react to her commitment to universal design by saying, "That's nice, honey. You take care of those people and we'll design for everyone."

That doesn't happen anymore, she said.

That's in part because more homes are multigenerational. Four million U.S. households have three generations in them, Peterson said, citing U.S. Census data. And every day, as many as 10,000 baby boomers are turning 65. Remodeling can make economic sense when compared with the cost of in-home care, assisted living or nursing homes.

Not only are baby boomers entering retirement, but the economic downturn has affected who might be doing renovations.

"Slowly but surely, the U.S. home improvement industry is emerging from its worst downturn since the government began tracking spending in the early 1960s," the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University said in a January report.

The report found that older people are among the industry's strongest segments.

"The reason for that has to do with the unique characteristics of this downturn. The folks who really got hurt the worst would have been younger households," Kermit Baker, director of the Remodeling Futures program at the center, said Tuesday by phone. People who have owned their homes for 20 years are "still sitting on equity" and, therefore, better able to spend money on their homes.

To some extent, universal design is a matter of perspective. Many people have for years refused to wear hearing aids that can be seen, but along comes Bluetooth and it's suddenly "cool" to have some contraption sticking out of your ear, Peterson said.

Older yet stylish

That cool factor was key for the Naples, Fla., company Great Grabz.

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