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posted: 4/6/2014 12:01 AM

Preparing space for senior relatives

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  • When an aging relative is downsizing into a new home, some of their furniture can be repurposed. An armoire can be used to store bed linens, pillows and memory books.

    When an aging relative is downsizing into a new home, some of their furniture can be repurposed. An armoire can be used to store bed linens, pillows and memory books.
    Courtesy of Ambella Home

By Christine Brun

Retrofitting a space for an aging relative is a delicate task.

First, consider the emotional component before any floor plan, furniture or design scheme. Realize that relocating, when one is in their later years, is disturbing on a colossal scale.

While it is difficult to empathize with reluctance that defies logic, remember that your mother or father has spent a lifetime as an independent soul. Most parents are uncomfortable with their children seemingly taking over their life. You will need the best of your interpersonal skills to make this a happy event.

Be certain to ask questions first. Consider the perspective that a professional designer must adopt: data collection, observation and suggestions. No one appreciates being railroaded into making a decision.

Think about enlisting the assistance of staff in the case of your family member moving into a senior facility. Often the separation offered by including a stranger or from using the services of a relocation specialist can be helpful to the process.

Likewise an interior designer can be useful in assessing what furniture might be best to keep, sell or donate to a local charity.

If you are instead bringing a relative to live in your home or in a separate structure on your property, try to treat the situation in the same professional manner. When adapting an existing guesthouse or suite to the needs of a senior, consider a few basic tenants of planning for people with special needs such as impairments in mobility, sight and hearing.

Avoid the obvious things like slippery surfaces, area rugs or changes in elevations that might cause tripping, and provide them adequate light. Allow ample room for a walker or wheelchair.

Often a person's needs shift over time as they age. If you are aware of your loved one's medical conditions, it will help you plan efficiently. Consider the possibility that things may not improve and likely will deteriorate over time.

Know that you will need to provide grab bars for safety, shower chairs or stools and perhaps safety alarm systems. Fortunately there are programs that can link surveillance from a main house with little intrusion.

Consider new uses for your relative's favorite furniture pieces. A dining hutch might be used for book and collectible storage. An armoire stores linens, pillows and memory books.

Furniture pieces do not have to reside in their traditional room locations and you might place an armoire in large handicap bathroom, for example. You could use a low buffet in a bedroom as a good-sized night table. Mix it up and be flexible in order to allow the new resident to keep something loved and familiar with sentimental value.

Once you have reviewed all of their existing furniture and determined exactly what you might move, create a floor plan to include those items. Paring down after a lifetime is not pleasant for most people and there is a true sense of loss. Honor that reality and try to exercise patience.

Know that you can buy useful and gently used items on the secondhand market. It is a way to acquire good quality pieces that are the proper size and scale for a small space. Very often older people are reluctant to spend a great deal on new furniture.

Color can do wonders to uplift the spirit, so consider new paint. Paint is cheap and can easily be changed. Fresh bedding and linens are another way to create the impression of newness. Simple items such as new lamps, throw pillows or cozy throws are also economical ways to create a color scheme.

• Christine Brun is a San Diego-based interior designer and the author of "Small Space Living." Send questions and comments to her by email at

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