Sunday, December 21, 2008

Household appliances becoming more accessible for aging baby boomers, people with disabilities

From The Grand Rapids Press in Michigan:

For baby boomers ready to blast into retirement, 59-year-old Jenny Shangraw (pictured) has sage advice: buy appliances wisely and think ahead.

Far ahead.

Shangraw, whose stamina is impaired by post-polio syndrome, considers herself a harbinger for boomers who want to "age in place" -- the idea of staying at home longer by wise selection of accommodating home products and design.

And more of those accommodations are coming available, as manufacturers develop drawer-based kitchen appliances, simplified controls and smarter formats.

"I'm the canary in the mine," Shangraw said.

Six years ago, the statistician for The Right Place economic development group built a universal-design home near Rockford. Beyond wider hallways and doors and a no-sill entry, the Shangraw home is equipped with appliances chosen to work well as she and her husband age.

Shangraw is at the leading edge of the baby boom generation, those born between 1946 and 1964. The population bulge of 76 million has surged through the economic landscape since birth. All that buying power -- a big chunk of the $25 billion U.S. appliance market -- is prompting manufacturers to pay closer attention to focus groups of old-timers.

But as those appliance and home products makers fine-tune features, they serve more than just baby boomers.

Within 10 years, many younger families will have live-in senior citizens. And designs to help the aging customer also can foster independence for children, said Margaret Biggs, a universal design consultant with Disability Advocates of Kent County.

One example: microwave ovens.

They should be at counter height or lower, Biggs said.

"The ones above the stove or oven are extremely dangerous for the elderly and children, because most of the time, something that's very hot is above their heads," Biggs said. Some new designs put the microwave in a pull-out drawer below the counter.

"It's great for children coming home from school, who want to zap a snack in the microwave," Biggs said.

At Williams Kitchen and Bath, 3850 29th St. SE, Kentwood, appliance specialist Esther Ritsema, 60, sees growing interest in user-friendly appliances.

Press Photo/Lance Wynn Jenny Shangraw, 59, unloads her front-loading washer while sitting in a chair.

"The drawer thing is a big deal for a lot of people," she said.

Beyond drawer microwaves, the convenience of a drawer refrigerator or drawer dishwasher has appeal.

"The dishwasher drawer is really great," Biggs said, "because you can install the drawer higher or lower."

Many of the accessible appliances are on display in Williams' Kentwood showroom.

In other easy access options, overhead cabinets could have pull-down shelves, while base cabinets' shelves could be pulled up. Cabinets with pocket doors can accommodate a cook in a wheelchair.

"This is a whole new market," Shangraw said.

From laundry room to kitchen to bathroom, thoughtful design targets safety and ease of use for aging boomers.

Whirlpool was one of the first appliance makers to put a washer and dryer on a pedestal, requiring less bending for aching backs. The innovation was spawned after customers with arthritis, deafness or blindness tested washing machines for the company.

A new laundry room twist by General Electric is a three-sump "smart dispenser" in the optional pedestal base for its Profile front loaders. The tanks hold up to six months of detergent, softener and other products in the drawer under the washer, simplifying the wash process.

Front-loaders are easier for the whole family, Biggs said. "A 5-year-old son can get the laundry out of the dryer and help his mom fold clothes," she said.

Focus groups of all ages want products that are lighter and easier to use, said Beth Jester, of Walker-based Bissell Homecare Inc.

"It comes up again and again," Jester said.

One of the latest versions of Bissell carpet cleaners, the PROdry, is the lightest-weight design the company has ever made.

In the kitchen, cooktops and ovens are hot for change.

Oven knobs need to be on the front of the unit, so cooks don't reach over hot pots to change the setting.

Older cooks also would be better off with induction cooktops, Biggs said. The smooth-top system uses magnetism to generate heat, and the burner cools quickly after a pot is removed.

By comparison, the open flame of a gas stove is a fire hazard.

And with technology, cooktop manufacturers are taking on one of the greatest hazards for aging cooks -- the forgotten pot that flares into a kitchen fire.

"That happened to my grandmother, and my folks," Shangraw said.

So some new cooktops have thermal sensors to cut the power when a burner dangerously overheats.

Other innovations aim for simplicity.

"There's fewer knobs to turn, and more push buttons," said Curt Geers, sales manager at Gerrit's Appliance Inc., 2410 28th St. SW, Wyoming. "Some people with very bad arthritis do have a hard time turning a knob."

Most baby boomers already have experience with old age -- their own parents.

"People are thinking about it because they see their parents put away in old-people's homes," said Ann Finkler, a contractor and real estate agent in the Grand Rapids region.

Now, when boomers plan new homes or remodeling, they have strong ideas about what needs to happen if they want to stay home longer.

"The biggest things they are asking for is zero-clearance showers and grab bars in places they wouldn't have, otherwise," Finkler said.

Showers without sills and ground floors without steps are both beneficial for wheelchair or walker users.

With pull-out drawers for appliances, open cabinetry, a level floor and a wheelchair-friendly layout, a house can be a home for years longer.

For baby boomers accustomed to running things, aging in place is just one more action item on the life list.

And a bevy of manufacturers are already on the case.