Sun, Feb 22, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Let old age come: She’s all set

Cynthia Leibrock, a leading proponent of Aging in Place, shows how homes should be built so owners can continue to live in them despite age-related problems

By Joyce Walder  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , LIVERMORE, COLORADO

ILLUSTRATION: TANIA

If there were a glitzy, razzle-dazzle competition for cheerleading captain of the Aging in Place movement — and given the boomer resistance to anything to do with aging, there certainly should be — Cynthia Leibrock, designer, consultant and Harvard instructor, would be a contender, strutting down the barrier-free, skid-free runway of a well-lighted arena; tossing an easy-grip baton in the air; blinding the judges with a smile and that fascinatingly taut face.

In the marketing minefield of design for aging, Leibrock knows what many do not: It may be good for you, but if it doesn’t look good, nobody’s interested.

Consider her home, a flashy glass-and-steel structure in the Colorado Rockies, with fabulous gewgaws that homeowners of any age would covet: The high-end kitchen has a Gaggenau magnetic induction cooktop (you won’t burn if you touch it, Leibrock points out) and a Gaggenau column refrigerator with shallow shelves (older people have diminished olfactory senses, she says, so food needs to be closer). The guest bath has a reflecting pool and a steam shower with a redwood bench; the frankly un-beautiful mechanical lift that gets one in and out of the ample tub is hidden in the ceiling. Should support bars be needed near the toilet someday, the required engineering is concealed behind the wall. No complicated installation is required: snap the tiles off, put the bars on. And they’re good-looking bars, too.

Universal design, a movement promoting the idea that all structures, public and private, should be equally accessible to everyone, has been around for many years. It is rooted in the work of Ronald Lawrence Mace, an architect and industrial designer with polio who helped develop the country’s first accessible building code, paving the way for the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Aging in place, a related but more recent movement, which holds that homes should be built so owners can continue to live in them despite age-related problems, has been driven by the aging boomer population.

The problem is that from a marketing and design point of view, the word “aging” is still the kiss of death. In a culture where Botox, Cialis and plastic surgery support the illusion that mortality is for other people, who wants a bathroom that looks as if it belongs in a rehab center?

Leibrock’s approach is to market her work in terms of great design and good health.

“Boomers are all about choice and being positive,” she says.

“I have a steam oven, so I can eat more pasta or steam in all the nutrients. I have an aromatherapy steam shower. If you have a cold, that’s very healing,” Leibrock says.

Is this a business? You bet it is. Leibrock has written three books, including Design Details for Health and Beautiful Universal Design (written with James Evan Terry), and her daily consulting fee can go as high as US$2,000, although she adds that she has worked without pay for those who cannot pay.

Her newly renovated home, Green Mountain Ranch, is intended to be a showcase, laboratory and training center for those interested in universal design. Leibrock, who has consulted for Kohler and Gaggenau, says each has donated about US$50,000 in products to her home; about 10 other manufacturers also contributed items.

Why would they do that?

“I’ve been in 60 magazines and eight books over the years,” Leibrock says. “They know my works, they just get exposure.”

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