When Parents Come Home
by Ariana Rawls Fine
Family dynamics evolve over time and living arrangements often do as well. It is common that family decisions are made for parents or a parent to move into an adult child’s home. There are physical, emotional, design and energetic aspects to be considered to make this transition as successful as possible.
“These are discussions that should take place well ahead of time to better plan, better deal with the changes emotionally and not under duress. By doing so, decisions and plans are well-executed rather than temporary fixes that make the space visibly and emotionally harder to navigate,” says Colin Healy (ColinHealyDesign.com), a Stratford-based home designer and certified aging in place specialist.
Planning ahead includes how the family will accommodate the elder parent and their visitors as time goes on. Although a parent may be fully independent now, visiting friends may have mobility challenges. Making design changes before reaching the point of immediate need also enables the family to ensure they are getting quality and matching hardware, flooring and structure changes such as grab bars.
Regulations and Zoning
Many towns will have regulations for size to have a family member live in the house with a separate kitchen unit, Healy explains. An accessory dwelling unit (ADU), also known as an “in-law” apartment is allowable for separate generations living in a house as long as they are related. Healy warns that setting it up this way and then using the space as a rented apartment can get a homeowner into trouble. He says in Connecticut the zoning favors larger parcels of property rather than encouraging apartments in single dwelling areas. Currently towns generally discourage detached dwelling units such as tiny houses.
One of Healy’s first questions to clients is whether they want the new space to be an independent unit with a kitchen or an addition with an accessible bathroom, bedroom and laundry on the first floor. Another design and zoning detail to be figured out is if another access point is needed to accommodate a ramp. This can be another front or back door, or a porch. Healy warns that some towns, such as Fairfield, do not allow two doors on the front of a house. In that town a design would need to include additional access points from a garage, breezeway, or a side or back door.
Access to various parts of the home is a key area for in-depth discussion and design. How will the person move from and to living areas, bathrooms, kitchen and laundry areas? Although there may not be an immediate accessibility issue, it is critical to plan for the future. For instance, at the time of moving in the parent may still be able to handle five steps to get inside, but there needs to be a plan for when a ramp is needed. Do now what is difficult later to redo by preparing for the different phases, Healy says. Other examples are a larger doorway for a wheelchair, the space to put in a ramp, and an accessible shower and toilet.
“Homes are not required to follow ADA guidelines for accessibility, but they are the guidelines that actually work,” Healy explains. One guideline regarding toilet placement is key in building an adaptable space for a parent. By placing the toilet next to a shower with a flat floor, the person gains over two feet of uninterrupted wall space to transfer from a wheelchair to the toilet. Select a wall-hung sink from the beginning of the design that allows space for the wheelchair to fit under.
Visitability and Visibility
It is likely that aging loved ones may have friends with mobility needs. Accommodating their potential needs enables the parent to have a more extensive social circle. This may mean ensuring that thresholds between rooms are level to avoid floor level changes and tripping hazards. From a décor perspective, rugs can be obstacles for wheelchairs and may trip those unsteady on their feet.
Healy says making design and structure changes in a hurry can devalue a house, which is more reason to plan proactively. For instance, if a ramp is needed, better planning could mean using a garage entrance, which would be more easily removable later. “With accessibility to the unit planned before, it makes things that will be eyesores less visible, which, in turn, increases curb appeal for everyone in the living space,” Healy says. Another option is using the zero-entry concept by using hard and soft landscaping as a way to bring people from the yard level to the main grade of the house. Examples include a winding path to a doorway or a natural ramp made with pavers.
Emotional Aspect of Designing
There is a tendency to focus on the logic and logistics of evolving space, but both the parent and the adult son or daughter (as well as the other live-in family members) need to have mental and emotional flexibility to adapt to the new life, says Betsy Cameron, an interior designer and owner of Westport-based Seva Interiors (SevaInteriors.com). There is a shift of roles as the offspring tries to parent; dynamics necessarily must shift. Cameron combines elements of design psychology and personal growth in her work with clients, touching on the emotional hurdles of someone who is the provider and then becomes the dependent. They need to relinquish their old role but be able to take care of themselves for as long as possible in the new space.
“At the point you decide to bring a new person into the home, you need to create the space by choosing what items they want to bring with them,” explains Cameron. There can be emotional attachment to furniture and guilt around letting it go to get something in place that serves them better now.
“When we look at the possibility of the space and change, we can look optimistically at the use of space. We can turn the change into a proactive adventure rather than a traumatic emergency,” Cameron suggests.
Try to give them space that fits them rather than incorporating them into the design of the home, Cameron says. Be sensitive to the familiarity and connection they have to their personal belongings and spaces. It is important for them to feel comfort and comfortable in their own space. How can the space be set up so they can function independently for as long as possible?
There is also a ripple effect in the family, similar to a new baby coming home, Cameron explains. It is necessary to recognize and respect that everyone has a different rhythm or pace. Designing a space where family members can converge but also move back to their own spaces is key. That could mean placing living quarters away from the kitchen hub where family congregates and away from the smells of cooking. Find ways to acoustically dampen noise, such as a subtle sound machine/wave noises, upholstered furniture or curtains. Another suggestion Cameron makes is to not have activities set up right outside their space, such as a homework area next to their door.
From a design standpoint, there are many indoor/outdoor performance fabrics that help with spills so that the parent can actively live in the space. Consider the type of materials too, such as softer pieces to grab on to that are also sturdy and steady; maybe it would be best to use an ottoman rather than coffee table in case of a fall. Remember that clear access flow is needed so keep spaces simply furnished, Cameron recommends.
“Change sparks opportunity to release, reflect and realign with who you are and how you want to live,” Cameron says. “We resist that this is where we are and that our life is changing. How will the space be able to expand and be flexible to embrace this next stage of our lives?”
Ariana Rawls Fine is a frequent contributor to Natural Awakenings. She resides in Stratford with her family.