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UNH Design Students Create Environments Enabling People to Age in Place

Release Date:
10/7/2013 9:00 AM

by Jackie Hennessey
Communications and Public Affairs Writer/Editor

Christy Anne Somerville, featuresChristy Somerville

With 10,000 Americans turning 65 each day for the next 15 years, finding innovative ways for people to “age in place” is fast becoming a priority for the interior design world, said Christy Somerville, assistant professor of art and design.

Somerville said it is never too early for people to design sustainable, universal living spaces that provide the kind of safety and comfort needed as people age. Nor is it too early for UNH’s interior design students to begin thinking about it. So she recently restructured a junior-level design course to include the study of universal design and aging in place.          

The redesign of the course couldn’t be more timely. In 2012, the Connecticut state legislature convened the Task Force to Study Aging in Place, and the group made a host of recommendations including a study of state and municipal-level zoning regulations that govern the building of new accessible units, remodeling of existing units including in-law type apartments, home modifications and home sharing. An AARP national survey found that 89 percent of those surveyed wanted to remain in their own homes as they enter their 60s, 70s and beyond. 

“It’s a fast-growing social issue,” Somerville said.

In the course, students experience what it is like to use wheelchairs around campus. They try the portable lift for getting in and out of bed. They visit retirement communities and an Alzheimer’s unit to see what the residents’ housing needs are.

“Using a manual wheelchair on the ramp into the Student Center or maneuvering in and out of an accessible toilet stall is more challenging than they thought,” Somerville said. “It is always an eye opener not only using the equipment but how people respond to the people using it, usually in a helpful manner but sometimes not.”

For a semester-long project, students redesign an existing home for a client. Last year, one team used the three-story house that they were renting in West Haven to create a model transitional living space for veterans. The other teams designed for a multigenerational family, an in-law apartment and a family with a child with Multiple Sclerosis.

Somerville, who is a Certified Aging in Place Specialist from the National Association of Home Builders, teaches students about the technologies involved in “smart homes” and the impact of design changes small and large including:

•    Nontraditional kitchen and bathroom appliances and fixtures such as sinks that can be manually or automatically raised and lowered to various sitting and standing heights. (“You do not have to be in a wheelchair to appreciate having a place to sit while prepping food over a sink,” Somerville said.)
•    Pull-out-drawer refrigerators and freezers, which reduce bending and reaching
•    Specialized cabinetry to improve accessibility
•    Bathtubs with a motorized side panel that raises and lowers to allow easier access
•    Use of electronics to monitor the needs of loved ones

Somerville’s goal is to make the next generation of interior designers more comfortable bringing up universal design to people at all stages of life.

“Addressing the topic of aging and eventual mortality,” she said, “is not something our American society talks about with ease.”

The University of New Haven is a private, top-tier comprehensive institution recognized as a national leader in experiential education. Founded in 1920 on the campus of Yale University in cooperation with Northeastern University, UNH moved to its current West Haven campus in 1960. The University operates a satellite campus in Tuscany, Italy, and offers programs at several locations throughout Connecticut and in New Mexico and California. UNH provides its students with a unique combination of a solid liberal arts education and real-world, hands-on career and research opportunities. The University enrolls approximately 6,400 students, including nearly 1,800 graduate students and more than 4,600 undergraduates – the majority of whom reside in University housing. Through its College of Arts and Sciences, College of Business, Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences, Tagliatela College of Engineering, and College of Lifelong & eLearning, UNH offers 75 undergraduate and graduate degree programs. UNH students have access to more than 50 study abroad programs worldwide and its student-athletes compete in 16 varsity sports in the NCAA Division II’s highly competitive Northeast-10 Conference.