Aging in Place, Designer-Style

By Michelle Seitzer / Posted on 28 May 2009

“In an aging population, no one knows what they are going to face. But we all know that as we grow older, we can’t do what we used to do.” – Rick Watson

A few weeks ago, I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Rick Watson. Rick is the Vice President of Italbec US, one of the world leaders in high-end natural stone and design. His current projects are the W Hotel in South Beach and Four Seasons Palm Beach.

While that’s Watson’s day job, his passion is “aging in place” design. “I’m on a mission to improve education about what’s needed, taking the stigma out of preparing your home for getting older, and teaching consumers how to make aging in place beautiful and practical,” he explains. “It’s so much a passion that I almost forget it’s a business. It’s more like what life is about and what we do every day is a part of that.”

An architect who has worked in interior design for the past 20+ years, Watson’s love of improving “aging in place” design originated with a unique project in Israel. A client approached him with a request to design a facility for the 55+ community. His assignment: The facility should meet the needs of residents ages 55 and up, whatever and whenever those needs may be, and no matter how that aging process might look. Watson eagerly accepted the challenge; he wanted to understand design and aging from a different perspective.

He knew how important it was for the facility to be attractive without having an institutional feel. Furthermore, the facility had to be safe, convenient, and helpful to an aging population (who will, as mentioned above, have varying needs at varying times during their stay). Of course, typically, “safe, convenient and helpful” design had been unattractive, he thought. Think about hospital design – sterile and functional perhaps, but not exactly warm and inviting. So the challenge for Watson was this: creating a facility that looked like a Ritz-Carlton with all the necessities for aging gracefully, i.e. lighting, grab bars, and non-slip surfaces.

There were two key highlights to this project, he says. First, the facility towered above a shopping mall and was also attached to the largest hospital in Tel Aviv. If residents have health issues, there is a clinic on site, along with assisted living, skilled nursing, and hospice services.

Second, with safety being of the utmost importance in Israel, that was another important consideration in building and designing an aging-friendly community there. Within 20-30 yards of the facility, you could be safe from any type of violent attacks, but the facility still looked like a high-end hotel with marble floors, rugs, chandeliers, and more. This type of design is rather unusual in Israel as most buildings are designed in a contemporary, old-World style, he says.

The project in Israel was an enormous success. After returning to the U.S., Watson duplicated the process in Fort Lauderdale (minus the attached shopping center and hospital). This led he and his business partner Jill (a certified Aging-in-Place specialist) to begin to look at all the ways to address an “aging in place” population.

They quickly realized they had to start with terminology. “Aging in place” has somewhat of a negative connotation, he points out, and it doesn’t truly apply because “everyone is aging in place.” The team decided to make it the positive experience it really is. “We founded our endeavors on making that a reality. We’re all going to age why not make it enjoyable and entertaining?

To do that successfully, it’s all about creating a conversation, says Watson. “It’s like anticipating a vacation. The anticipation is magnificent, but the actual vacation sometimes doesn’t work out so well. Most of us are both excited and afraid about aging, which creates a real opportunity for the conversation to take place.”

For Watson, “aging in place” design is personal. His mother will be 84 this year. She has lived alone for 23 of those years and has always been independent and healthy – and thankfully, she still is. But let’s go back to the opening quote for a moment: as we age, there are things that we just cannot do the way we did at say 10 or 20. So when Watson’s mother had a fall, the siblings expressed the inevitable: “Oh no, what should we do” to which Watson supplied a hearty “She’s fine!” Rick says she was most upset because she couldn’t get her hair fixed for a week or so during the recovery.

Clearly, Rick’s mission for the education and execution of “aging in place” design is rooted in his personal experiences and understanding of the aging process as a natural part of life. His work is shaped by this goal: Since we are all aging in place, let’s make this experience something positive, not detrimental. Let’s make living alone both safe and functional for those who have various (and often unpredictable) needs as they age, and let’s address that beautifully, with architecture and with interior design.

I couldn’t agree more.

- Michelle Seitzer

How have you modified your home for an aging parent or to meet your changing health needs? Share your story here!

There are 2 Comments about this post

  1. Valerie says,

    This is a wonderful story. It would be wonderful if all of our elderly loved ones could live in a Ritz Carlton like environment.

    When we prepared for my 81 yr old god-sister to come live with me, we had recently downsized to a 3 story town house. We had to move our home office from the first level to a third floor bedroom so we could make the first level a living quarters for my god-sister. We also had to have a handicap bathroom constructed on the first floor. There were other changes as well, but these were the major ones.

    My god-sister is a stroke survivor with dementia and severe arthritis.


    on 28 May 2009 / 7:30 PM

  2. Michelle says,

    Thanks for your comment, Valerie, and for sharing your family’s experience with home modifications to meet your god-sister’s needs. It would be nice if all seniors could live in a Ritz-Carlton-like environment, but then again, there’s no place like home! I’m sure she is more than happy to live with her loved ones.


    on 29 May 2009 / 6:30 AM


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