Lesson Two: (Re)Design Your Space - Aging Our Way
This is the second in a 13- post series on living well, adapted from Aging Our Way: Lessons for Living from 85 and Beyond
Margaret, like most of us, has a favorite chair. It is mustard yellow, part of a set of two. She sits in that yellow chair to read the morning paper, to watch TV, to talk on the phone, and to gaze out the window at the birds.
At 98, getting up and around isn't as smooth as it once was. In fact, she's most afraid that her knees might give out. So she's content to experience the bulk of her time in that chair. She has set her chair area up as the central pivot in her small apartment; most of the important things in life are accessible from there. I call this her "command center."
On the table to her left: the phone and her Lifeline device, and a magnifying glass. Down by her feet: blankets, and a magazine and newspaper file. To her left, a table with a reading lamp, a book, pens, paper, and the television remote. Behind her back, two pillows. And right in front of her, that "honey of a walker" waiting for action.
We read a lot about universal design for independent living these days, and how to make your home safer and more accessible. We imagine designers, contractors and consultants specializing in this type of work, and installing grab-bars and handrails, and they do. (See the AARP Livable Communities check-list for ideas.) But rarely do we imagine nonagenarians also doing the work of interior design as an extension of self-care.
In my years visiting elders in their homes, I have been pleasantly surprised to observe as they thoughtfully, proactively, (re)design their spaces to fit with their changing needs. And who better to do this work? Elders like Margaret know their daily routines and their physical limits. She insists on living alone in her small apartment (she moved here to downsize years ago), and protecting her autonomy. In order to maintain self-care, Margaret is constantly perfecting how to best organize her space for convenience and efficiency. By organizing the little stuff in her life, the impact can be huge.
Take Margaret's kitchen table, which is located just 5 steps away from Margaret's yellow chair. There, she has the important stuff laid out and ready for mealtime, including a place-setting, pill bottles and eye drops, a clock, and yesterday's mail to read (next to a basket for mail she will keep). Just a few steps away is the kitchen, where Margaret always has a few dishes waiting on the counter (not high up in the cabinet), ready to use, and the coffee maker is ready to go. Recently, Margaret removed the rug on her kitchen floor, for fear that it was a tripping hazard.
Together, Margaret's chair, table, and kitchen counter form a regular circuit that Margaret travels several times in a day. (Slightly off the circuit is her CD-Player, for musical accompaniment.) She welcomes the "exercise," and the routine. She even rewards herself at the end of the day, with her favorite snack, peanut-butter on a graham cracker.
According to Margaret, a clear daily routine that emphasizes convenience, AND a space that enables comfort and purpose, makes it that much easier to face each day at 98.
Yet another example of the Greatest Generation doing it for themselves, in pragmatic and meaningful ways. For more examples, see Chapter Two of Aging Our Way.
Another lesson for living, for all ages.
How have you (re)designed your living space? Would love to know!
Copyright Meika Loe
Meika Loe is Associate Professor of Sociology and Women's Studies at Colgate University. She is the author of Aging Our Way: Lessons for Living from 85 and Beyond