Universal Design and Accessibility

A Personal and Exhausting Journey

This month I set out to move my dad, who is nearly 90 and confined to a wheelchair, from an assisted living facility in rural southeastern Virginia to one here in the Valley. Many people face the challenges of taking on responsibility for the care of one or more parents in mid-life. For us, it didn’t happen until we’d reached retirement age ourselves.

For the past year and a half, Dad lived in a town between the Rappahannock River and the Chesapeake Bay trying to re-invent itself as a tourist destination. If you review my blog from November of 2014, “A River Runs By It,” you’ll get the gist of this community: same challenges, different region.

I felt some trepidation in venturing there alone to work through the legal and medical logistics and deal with the angry step-children of late wife #4, who were now losing legal control of his assets by Dad revoking their Power of Attorney. But first I needed to see what facilities were available for him here.

I went in holding a set of expectations for what assisted living should be, assuming that I’d tour those nearby, narrow it down to the best few, then head to Virginia to pick him up. He wanted to decide from among the final three himself, which I encouraged.

Then reality struck.


Pick your favorite lavatory sink from the two ADA versions pictured above. Not difficult, was it? Now find one that functions as well as either of them installed in an assisted living facility. You have two months for your search. Good luck. (Hint: You will soon long to see the one on the left.)

Even in Arizona, where residents 55 and older represent 27 percent of the overall population, most assisted living facilities designed specifically for seniors exhibited one or more of the following conditions:

  •       Deep carpet with thick, squishy pad, preventing the use of a wheelchair
  •       No carpeting at all, resulting in echo, even when furnished
  •       Lavatory sinks built into standard base cabinetry; ditto with kitchenette sinks
  •       Lavatory sinks billed as “accessible” with panels beneath the sink or counter top that were ADA-compliant in terms of the measurements, but that kept him so        far from the sink he could not reach the faucets (at 6’3”, he has VERY long legs, and if built exactly to ADA specs, he cannot wash his hands)
  •       Window blind controls high off the floor or above built-ins in front of the window, requiring someone else to open/close them
  •       Light switches over kitchen base cabinets instead of adjacent to them
  •       Closets with all upper rods and no shelves or double rods
  •       Door swings of the bathroom and entries in conflict with each other
  •       Main entry doors of facilities with no automatic openers/buttons
  •       A/C units where the temperature is controllable, but the fan never shuts off
  •       Marketing people touting walking distance to grocery shopping and banking when no sidewalks exist to use
  •       Screened porches or sun rooms for residents with non-posted rules that someone must accompany the residents while using that area; and heavy doors with no       automatic openers to discourage entering on their own

After two months, I’d narrowed it to four that I’d be happy to live in myself someday, with monthly costs ranging from $3,750.00 to $5,200.00—about $1k less than comparable ones where he’d lived. Keep in mind, residents also have to furnish their units. There’s your wake-up call to save till it hurts and work till you can’t or don’t need to!

It took a few thousand dollars and two trips to Virginia to make it happen for him: the first for me to assess his physical and mental ability to make a big move, and the second to pull our empty trailer to VA to load his things, with my hubby turning around and driving back to AZ the next day, and Dad and I boarding a jet a couple of days later.

We were soon wilting curbside at Terminal 4 on our record-breaking 115ºF Saturday, awaiting a transport van whose air conditioning turned out to be broken. Surely Dad must have thought I’d grown a sadistic streak. But after a day’s rest, he was ready to see the finalists in the search.

He chose a one-bedroom apartment in a great facility with wide hallways and doors, a well-appointed dining room akin to a resort hotel (with consistently marvelous food served restaurant style), eight lounges, a convenience store, daily activities, a van shuttle to shopping and medical appointments, outings to museums, botanical gardens, zoos, casinos, etc., and attentive staff who communicate well and enjoy working with seniors. Oddly enough, the latter is rare.

Why was this task so difficult? How is it that a select few rise head and shoulders above all the others? Haven’t we come further than this in designing living spaces for those with physical challenges?

Not that it’s all the fault of owners or design-build firms. Even with the best intentions, guidelines and regulations between various agencies often conflict, and they all are written in language that requires an attorney’s interpretation. Owners, especially those with only one or two properties, often rely on general contractors for guidelines and regulations that are easily misconstrued. Sometimes regulations are intentionally circumvented when remodeling properties built prior to 1991, particularly in apartment-to-senior living conversions; if the owners can demonstrate undue financial burden, they can often avoid complying with requirements.

This leads us to one single, soul-searching question for developers and designers alike:

Are these facilities designed to help our seniors and those with disabilities have the same ease of living we enjoy—or simply for profit, knowing that although legislation exists to define what’s acceptable, there are numerous work-arounds?

Many of us design spaces for able-bodied seniors who are well off. Unless we work for a firm specializing in the design of senior independent living facilities, assisted living facilities, or nursing homes, we don’t hang out on the site prior to specifying the interiors. So we rarely have the opportunity to contribute to making these more modest spaces truly livable and enjoyable for their residents, many of whom led active and interesting lives and deserve better in their twilight years. But someone does design them.

Watching a huge smile grow across Dad’s face was my reward later in the week when I opened the door to his new apartment and handed him the keys to a space that included his familiar recliner and electric bed, but also new furnishings so visitors didn’t have to sit on that bed; a second TV for the living room he didn’t have before; a dining table he can wheel under and use as a writing table; a truly accessible kitchenette; wall art with his viewing angle in mind; memorabilia from his families and career; and his own soft, colorful towels and linens instead of the scratchy white laundry-service versions. The simple things can matter so very much at this stage of life.

It was the smallest, but most gratifying pro-bono design project yet, coming together under budget and, best of all, on time—before it was too late.

DianaKemptonheadshotA professional member of IIDA, Diana earned her specialty LEED credential for Interior Design + Construction in 2013, having earned her LEED AP in Building Design and Construction in 2006. She worked for Del Webb Corporation designing semi-custom interiors, and spent thirteen years with a local builder supplier before returning to work as an independent designer. She also operates an antiques dealership and teaches sustainable design, space planning, materials and estimates, and color theory at the college level. In creating livable interiors, she is particularly sensitive to not allowing our high-tech lifestyles and the interior walls of our homes to divide us from one another, and has been focusing on Mid-century Modern design in recent years. Diana can be reached at


4 Comments on this Post

  1. Been there, done that – I know what you went through and it is a tough mentally and physically for both parties. Because I’m not a designer as a lay person I would have never noticed what you pointed out. As a society I don’t think we take care of or respect our elderly which is too bad but perhaps this post you wrote will be the beginning of making changes to accommodate our elderly

  2. As an interior designer that specializes in senior living communities, we understand the challenges that residents and families go through. We are constantly fighting to change regulations for the industry, and yes it does come down to the money. ADA requirements often become restrictions that do not work for everyone. The majority of the items that you mentioned in your blog would never happen in a community designed by us. But as the senior living industry has grown, there are owners, developers, architects and designers who do not understand the requirements for residents, families, and staff and are building and designing for profit only. Just as the design industry has ASID and IIDA, so too does the senior industry. ALFA, Argentum, and Leading Age are associations can assist you in making a wise choice for a parent.

    • Diana Kempton, IIDA, LEED-AP ID+C

      Thanks for your insight and suggestions of associations to help those in search of senior living facilities.
      It IS difficult to design living spaces that will work for most but can also be modified to work for individuals with other needs. Keeping universal design guidelines in mind would avoid a lot of problems to begin with. And flexibility in the bath and kitchenette areas so changes can be made quickly/inexpensively/tastefully for one resident and quickly put back for the next–seems to be paramount. I’m sure much of your work involves educating the owners and developers in the pre-design phase. Keep up the great work!

  3. Diana, What an amazing story & fortunately you knew exactly what to look for in an independent living facility. My mother (86) and father-in-law (101) are still living independently although Dad is now using a walker but didn’t when he moved there. His “independent living facility” provides meals, housekeeping weekly, van trips to the grocery store, transportation to doctor appointments, etc. We did just visit a new assisted living facility. It’s been a few years since I took my “aging in place” courses, so I didn’t inspect things as closely as you did. Floors rollable, no lip into the shower, grab bars & width of door openings. Now I’m going to have to go back or check my photos to see how they did on the small but equally important items you pointed out.


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