Designing spaces to meet the needs of baby boomers is especially challenging because there’s no clear definition of this specific patient population nor of its unique needs and desires regarding the healthcare built environment.

So it’s no wonder that there’s confusion among healthcare industry leaders on how to respond with an appropriate design for this very important inpatient and outpatient base.

Through all of this confusion, it’s important to note a new approach that can be the great equalizer: universal design.

There are many variations of this approach, which are quickly gaining momentum and acceptance within the industry. This is because the term and its meaning provides the most consistent and overarching criteria for serving a large community of users.

And the method applies to all, including senior, bariatric, handicapped, or other special needs users. Universal design is a method of planning and design that responds to as large of a constituency as possible and is as inclusive as possible.

Said differently, universal design is good design.

For example, here are some examples of universal design solutions that might be used to assist boomers in healthcare settings:

  • Toilets and showers designed for handicapped accessibility
  • Curbless showers with trench drains
  • Steps avoided in building entrances and landscape features
  • Door knobs that are a lever design and require low physical effort to turn
  • Light switches with large flat panels rather than small toggle switches

As much as universal design is a good investment for many building types and related occupants, one of its most meaningful uses is in healthcare, where building occupants regardless of age are often frail and vulnerable.

Of course, there are many considerations that should be weighed, including building codes, product design, safety, cost, and the constructability of solutions. For example, there may be potential conflicts between ADA guidelines and universal design.

However, one of the primary reasons universal design is gaining so much popularity is the inevitability of its need. To quote Larry Hale, chairman of the Universal Design Coalition, “you need it before you need it.”

Considering boomers alone, the generation ranges in age by 18 years, meaning the evolution of built environment responses will likely unfold over about 30 years. A solution to that kind of variability in users’ functionality and needs, universal design responds to all ages, disabilities, sensory functionality, and physical attributes.

For more information on universal design criteria, refer to the following North Carolina State University – Center for Universal Design wesbsite at