Q&A: aging in place on Bowen Island, tips from an interior designer

Barbara Wahler is a local professional interior designer of more than 30 years of experience, a member of the interior designers of Canada and a member of the American Society of Interior Design. She has a full-service residential practice with specialized training in kitchens and bathroom design.  The Undercurrent recently chatted with Wahler about what islanders can do to adapt their homes to age in place. The following interview has been abridged for length, clarity and grammar. 

BIU: Why do you think aging in places important for islanders?

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Wahler: I think it’s important to seniors everywhere, especially now as we’ve been watching some pretty ugly truths unfold about senior care options. Aside from that, there are so many aspects of Bowen’s special character and the quality of life that we have all come to really love here that we would sorely miss if we’re forced to leave because of age. And over the recent years, we’ve watched lots of people leave for exactly this reason.

BIU: What are some easy things people can do to make their homes more aging in place friendly?

W: There are a lot of easy things. 

A lot of us have door knobs––switch those out to leavers which are much easier to manipulate if you’re suffering from arthritis. Same thing with cabinets: take any knobs off, drill a second hole and replace those knobs with a pole that’s easier to grab. 

A really big one in my mind is lighting. As we age, our sight starts to decline and on a rainy day it’s pretty dull and dark inside a lot of people’s homes. You can improve lighting tremendously in terms of manufactured light: lamp light, surface fixtures. It can be as simple as replacing ceiling lighting fixtures.

The other thing with lighting is the issue of glare. That’s a really big problem for seniors. We live in a place where nobody likes to put anything on their windows because we want to be looking out at our beautiful view. But there are lots of non-obtrusive options, easy to raise or lower when you’ve got glare streaming in the window. 

Another one is safety features and convenience items in bathrooms: add grab bars,  a shower seat, a bathbench, change to a comfort-height toilet. A lot of homes have alcove tubs that can be so easily popped out and turned into a shower and the fittings can be changed to single-leaver fittings. That’s goes for faucets on lavatory sinks too. It is much easier for a senior to use a single-lever faucet as opposed to two leavers that you have to manipulate and fiddle with to get the temperature right. 

Or just simply reducing clutter and adding some really good, easy-to-reach accessible storage options.

Or painting, adding colour. A lot of people here are afraid of colour because they think we live in this this grey environment and they don’t want to make their room dark. But the eye perceives lightness and brightness, not just from manufactured light, but also from contrast. So you can use color accents in a space that will actually make it a lot easier to navigate the space.

BIU:So then what are some of the more involved things to make homes more aging in place friendly?

W: More intense means more bucks––a complete kitchen or bathroom remodel. There are lots of guidelines about what one would look into to make those spaces more user-friendly. 

Another thing is a residential elevator, which people think is scary in terms of cost and space, but several manufacturers have designed great small-scale residential elevators and it’s often easy to find a corner or a closet to accommodate something like that. 

Look at moving a master suite to the main floor. Sometimes that requires an addition and adding extra space but often it doesn’t. Many times I’ve been able to say, hey, there’s this space here and if we move this wall and do this or that. 

Adding a suite to be able to accommodate a professional caregiver too.

Or integrated technology: there are all kinds of wonderful systems like Control4 where you can integrate all of your lighting fixtures, your heating in a simple touch screen as opposed to having to manipulate switches. And it can incorporate  alert systems like fall alert systems.

BIU: What are some common misconceptions you see when it comes to aging in place?

That in order to have a truly accessible space, it needs to be ugly. There is a basis for that misconception because 10-12 years ago when people started talking about this, you could only access products being made for hospitals or care facilities. 

That is so not true now. Every major manufacturer has come out with the most beautiful things. You can design an accessible space in every possible style: traditional, contemporary, West Coast modern, etc. A bathroom can look like a spa bath in the finest hotel and yet be totally aging in place friendly.

[Wahler later added that interior design doesn’t need to cost a lot of money and that there are affordable options.]

I participated in a really interesting webinar the other day…aging in place has been the label for this for all of this time. And lately, professionals are starting to look at it a little bit differently: we’re talking about calling it living in place as opposed to aging in place. 

BIU: When should one start thinking about this sort of matter?

W: It is never too soon. It’s been really interesting since the COVID situation began, all of a sudden I’m coming across young families who are starting to think seriously about this because they’re thinking about caring for their aging parents. They’re also thinking about the advantages of multi-generational living in this new normal where kids might be learning remotely or parents might be working from home. Also, young people have accidents and need a place to recover that is user-friendly. Or there are kids with disabilities. There are lots of good reasons to be looking at this, not just from the perspective of aging, and not just from the perspective of remodeling. A lot of developers now are being encouraged to consider this as they’re building new homes.

BIU: Anything to add?

W: There are easy ways to move forward with these initiatives without island shopping or off island labour. There are lots of good people, besides myself, here on the island to make these things happen.
With most of the easy options, the important thing is to get some good guidance in order to be sure that product choices are compatible with existing circumstances.


A little about Wahler: 

When Wahler was a child, her father used to tell stories of being in the Navy and one of his favourite stories was about the time he and his buddies went AWOL to an island in Canada called Bowen Island. 

“As far as my family’s concerned, I’m AWOL now,” laughs Wahler.

“When I first came here, I thought, okay, there’s going to be a price to pay for living in paradise,” she said. And for a few years she commuted to town where her clients were. But then came the turning point. Wahler read a story in the Undercurrent from Bruce Russell, explaining that the golf course was buying a trailer to use as a clubhouse and that they would be glad for donations from the community. 

“So my husband and I were talking about at a dinner and we don’t play golf, but we both said you know, we should really make a contribution because we have so many friends who do play golf,” she said. But then another idea came to her––offering her interior decorating services without charge. 

“Well, I did the project, and had lots of fun working with everybody out there. And that was the turning point for me. Since that time, at least 75% of my businesses been here on Bowen and In the past three years 90% of my business has been here on Bowen.

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