For Mature Tastes

With few options for new housing redesigning remains the best way to make a home senior-friendly

As suggested in this issue’s Special Report, it would appear that neither the Hong Kong government nor developers in the private sector are terribly concerned about the needs of the city’s rapidly aging population. Buildings and developments specifically designed for the elderly — with on-site medical staff, carefully planned menus for delicate older stomachs, wide doorways that accommodate walkers and wheelchairs, clubhouses that foster a sense of community and so on — are few and far between. True, parents traditionally live with their kids in their golden years, but those kids are frequently off on international careers and making new lives overseas.

So it falls to each individual family to make sure elderly parents — and sometimes grandparents; life expectancy is getting longer every year — have homes that are appropriate for them, even if it is one flat in a building of several hundred.

This is where interior design steps in. Sure, we all want a swish, open concept studio in our youth, but the aged among us have vastly different needs. Clifton Leung of the ten-year-old Clifton Leung Design Workshop specialises in retail and residential spaces, and he admits that yes, he’s seen an increase in requests for interiors that are seniorfriendly, often from past clients who need their parents’ homes to be refitted to suit them in later life. So where does Leung begin?

“Safety is a big issue for older clients. Durability, easy maintenance, and you have to be aware of sharp corners. You don’t want too many sharp corners. Bathrooms need a lot more handles for grip, and tiles should be smaller so that there’s more grouting, and more grip,” he begins. “If you have steps, you need handles. Lightingwise, it should be bright. Chairs should be firm rather than soft. In the kitchen, if they’re still cooking, the counter should be a bit lower, especially when a wok is used a lot. A client asked me for that and I’ve found it a very valid request.”

Redesigning interiors to have better grip underfoot and plenty of bars and handles to grab on to seems like simple logic, but an older resident’s level of activity should be considered, as well as whether or not they have live-in help. “Maintenance-wise, surfaces should be easy to clean, a bright kitchen is best, and lots of storage,” says Leung. He points out common requests for plenty of storage, but stresses the need to think ahead about all the things most of us take for granted. “I would bring the hanging cabinets a bit lower so that it’s easier to access, rather than using a stepladder. The little things are what count … I let clients pick their own appliances and furniture. I do more space planning and hardware and the built-in elements. You need to be accommodating.” And yes, Leung indeed keeps an eye on aesthetics. Elderly does not need to equate with dull or dowdy.

The trickiest aspect of refitting a home for a specific demographic comes from fundamental design. Few designers — or purchasers — would call typical Hong Kong flat layouts efficient or well thought out. Could developers be on the hook for that one? “Oh definitely. They only think about square footage. They don’t care about the layout. There are terrible layouts in Hong Kong,” Leung huffs. “Most of the jobs I do involved ripping out the walls, 100 percent, if it’s possible. The layouts are so badly designed they’re not user-friendly. There’s only light source in the middle of the ceiling. That’s crazy. It drives people to buy, like, a 5000- watt light to brighten the entire room. It’s not comfortable and it’s just not nice.”

While redesign can be relatively inexpensive, and there is no shortage of affluent older citizens in Hong Kong, there are pensioners with working kids that have stricter budgets. Screwing in a few bars in the bathroom can be done affordably, but making room in narrow doorways (which are numerous) for those aforementioned wheelchairs can get pricey. “The best bet is to simply take off the door. Unscrew it and leave the frame,” Leung explains of cost-efficient way to free up extra space. “You can take the frame off and do a bit of plastering. That will give you several inches. You instantly enlarge the space and you don’t need to do that much work. It’s an easy retrofit.”

Senior-friendly materials can be culled from what is easily available in Hong Kong, and Leung is careful to minimise dusty, messy on-site work that could potentially aggravate respiratory problems — something he does for all his clients regardless of age. Good thing too, because for now, redesigning existing flats seems to be the only way to go. Leung and his peers are going to be busy. After all, we’re not getting any younger.