So whether they’re downsizing a home or building one from scratch, how can designers create a space that’s fun and safe for all ages? “We like to speak extensively with our clients to understand exactly how they live,” Nussbaumer says. “All my clients, including those who are grandparents, are very young at heart and active: still skiing, boating, sailing, and even skydiving. But they’re also thinking about what’s ahead, considering their next steps.” Her older clients usually want a private suite incorporated into the design—somewhere set apart, where they can sneak off and take care of business affairs during a family visit. She also considers needs that may arise in the future, like the mobility issues that can accompany aging, and seeks out discreet ways to incorporate ADA–friendly features. Nussbaumer advises designers working on similar projects to consider the safety of younger generations in addition to their entertainment. “We have to remember to design for the younger family members in these multigenerational homes too—toddlers running around a pool, for example—and consider the safety aspects of different materials. We don’t want anyone to slip and fall!”
In her 2022 book Home Therapy: Interior Design for Increasing Happiness, Boosting Confidence, and Creating Calm, interior designer and licensed therapist Anita Yokota walks readers through a system she developed for helping homeowners nurture their body, mind, and spirit through design. She explains that one of the primary goals of the book, and of her work in general, is to help others learn to “live in the gray”—that is, to help people come to terms with the perplexing and ever-changing nature of life. “Whether things work out or not, you have to remember that life circumstances can and often do change,” she says. “And when you set up your home appropriately, you can process what you’re feeling in the comforting cocoon of, say, a cozy chair surrounded by plants and calming colors while you learn to live more comfortably with uncertainty.” That concept rings even more true for people experiencing major life transitions like retirement, loss of loved ones, and the unfolding difficulties of aging.
Roughly 77% of adults aged 50 and older would prefer to remain in their current homes for the rest of their lives, according to ongoing national polls conducted by the AARP. (That statistic has remained consistent for over a decade, despite the pandemic.) For most people, a sense of permanence provides peace of mind. But change is inevitable, and that sense of permanence will be disrupted, in some way or another, for everyone. And when it happens, interior designers are in a unique position to help clients embrace transition through reviving their surroundings.
The key, according to designer Aamir Khandwala, is empathy. “Most designers are very good at reading people. We’re therapists in a way,” he says. “We get to know our clients intimately: their habits, routines, likes and dislikes…where they sit at different times of day, how they use each corner of a room. You have to think: What do I need to do to make that moment more pleasurable and comfortable?” It’s a process of learning about each client’s idiosyncrasies, then applying that knowledge in a way that can improve their lives day to day.
Khandwala’s clients range from 22 to 92 years old, and many in the older age bracket remain highly active. For them, he makes sure to include small design details that can improve their quality of life: sofa and armchair seat heights that reach at minimum 18 inches high for easy access, seating that falls on the firm side so clients don’t sink too deeply into plush materials, brighter lighting for increased visibility, and flooring softened with non-slip rugs and carpets. He says assessing the functionality of various materials is an important aspect of empathetic design—especially for older clients. That means choosing materials that not only look great but also bring warmth to bare floors and require little maintenance: performance velvet, wool or nylon carpets, jute and raffia rugs, and other high-performance materials that can make a huge impact. “There are a lot more materials to choose from now,” says Khandwala, who recommends mixing wool with natural textures like Sunpat—a hardy, sustainable, and raffia-like woven fiber used in rugs. “I look for warm, soft materials that can be cleaned easily. What kind of carpets would feel best when a client walks barefoot across the living room?”