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Design for a Lifetime, or: "What Do We Do About the Bathtub?"

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Elderly Woman , B&W image by Chalmers ButterfieldPhoto by Chalmers Butterfield, from Wikimedia Commons Would you consider New York City "age-friendly"? That is, is it a place where people of all ages—including the very old—can feel comfortable, safe, and happy?

One million people aged 65 and over call New York City home, and a half-million more are expected to swell those ranks by 2030. New York City's top-notch public transportation system and rich access to cultural institutions contribute toward making it a place where these folk will want to stay; most are not planning to leave for southerly climes anytime soon, if ever.

The mayor, the NYC Council, and the dedicated staff of the New York Academy of Medicine joined the worldwide efforts to create a more age-friendly city several years ago, forming Age-Friendly NYC, and formally pledged their commitment at the First International Conference on Age-Friendly Cities in Dublin, Ireland in 2011. A dynamic coalition of governmental entities, professional institutions and cultural and other nonprofit organizations has shared their expertise, resulting in a collection of Tools and Resources that point the way for any wishing to work in this area, and for those seeking out age-friendly businesses, cultural opportunities, or educational institutions.

The American Institute of Architects' trailblazing New York Chapter stepped up to the plate by forming a Design for Aging Committee in 2010: Their goal: "to increase public awareness of the needs of the elderly in an urban environment and by designing to accommodate those needs... to create a more age-friendly City for all to enjoy." They produced a groundbreaking full-day event, Booming Boroughs: Redesigning Aging-in-Place in NYC, a charrette that brought together experts from architecture, interior design, urban planning, environmental gerontology and related fields to come up with practical and creative ways to design so New Yorkers can live out their lives in familiar surroundings amidst friends and family.

Bathroom interior with sink and tub/shower. Image ID: 3984827Bathroom interior with sink and tub/shower. Image ID: 3984827To tie in with the Age-Friendly NYC initiative, the New York Public Library and the Design for Aging Committee joined forces, and five of the Committee's members presented the program, Design for a Lifetime: Preparing Your Home for Successful Aging at the Library's Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. Moderated by environmental gerontologist Lorraine G. Hiatt, the panel included architect Phyllis Sperling, lighting engineer Manny Feris, and interior designers Gail Ressler and Joelle Lichtman. The playlist of seven closed-captioned videos from the evening includes all the presentations and can be found on YouTube and below.

So, what does all this have to do with bathtubs? It turns out that the ubiquitous bathtub is a frequent topic of often-anguished conversation among those in the field of designing for later life. The tubs seem fraught with danger no matter one's age, and the risks only increase through the lifespan. Fortunately there are lots of alternatives out there. More than one panelist seemed happy to encourage clients to let go of the tub. While it may seem like an old friend to many of us they made the point brilliantly and the bathtub may indeed not be as essential as we think.

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