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

Sun, Feb 22, 2009 - Page 9

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.”

(This, it turns out, is a bit of cheerleader hyperbole: It does not mean that 60 different designs of Leibrock’s have been published — in fact, her own house has never been published — but that images of details she has designed have appeared in print frequently.)

Agingbeautifully.org/ranch, Leibrock’s Web site, features the sort of portrait you’d expect of a plastic surgeon rather than a woman who has consulted on accessibility standards for the US Air Force. At 60, she is in admirable shape. Miss the turn for her house and she gets on her US$5,000 custom Dean titanium bike to round you up, already suited up in her cold-weather gear for her customary morning ride. The fact that a bike is unlikely to overtake the reporter’s Hummer is not a deterrent. Leibrock is one determined gal.

She also has great sound bites, which she points out, lest a reporter, lulled into soporific indifference by the music of the Spa channel and the Feng Shui Pure 2 fountain at her home, miss them.

“I’ve got a great one-liner for you,” Leibrock says. “The line is, ‘I want people to know no matter whether they have mental or physical disabilities’ — change that word to differences — ‘they are only disabled if they can’t do what they want to do. Architecture can eliminate disability by design.’ You see my point. If you are in a house where you can do what you want to do, you’re not disabled anymore.”

And a little later: “Could you mention agingbeautifully.org in the story?” she says.

Leibrock is aging awfully well herself. Has she had any work?

“I’m not telling you,” she says.

But after a little nudging: “I had a peel. And one Botox, about four shots a year. I wanted to look better, not younger,” she says.

And in a note, later: “I forgot one thing. When they did my peel, they took out a fat pocket below each lower lid,” she wrote.

But she has a spiritual side as well.

“I designed a kitchen with Julia Child for an exhibit at the Smithsonian,” Leibrock says. “I’ve been teaching at Harvard for 18 years. This doesn’t happen to an interior designer from Pocatello, Idaho, but it happened to me, because I’ve maintained a very tight sense of mission. It’s my faith that drives me, my prayer time. I’m a very organized pray-er. I journal, I write a letter to God every morning.”

The hillside home Leibrock shares with her husband, Frank, a retired engineer, is not wheelchair accessible, but it is wheelchair adaptable, Leibrock says.

Designing a home with an eye toward easy renovation is key to aging in place.

And while she used high-end appliances and furnishings, she says that universal design need not be expensive. Her Gaggenau induction cooktop would sell for US$5,600, but one could buy an induction cooktop by Hob for US$680, she says.

Nonetheless, she can’t help but point out the quartersawn maple woodwork in her husband’s den. With two Murphy beds and a barrier-free bathroom that has a wheelchair accessible toilet in the shower, it could easily be converted to a suite for someone who is wheelchair dependent.

There are no grab bars in the bathroom, but if the day comes when they’re needed, it will be easy enough to install them, because beneath the Ann Sachs tiles, the bathroom walls have been reinforced with 3/4-inch (1.9cm) plywood.

And check out the wall between the bathroom and the den.

“This is a movable wall, so whenever I get so decrepit I need a caretaker, they can take me off the Murphy bed and wheel you onto a gurney or in a wheelchair,” Leibrock says, in a mildly disconcerting midsentence pronoun switcheroo. “These doors allow wheelchair access.”

The reporter sees a wheelchair in the corner of the bathroom. Shall we put the key in the ignition and fire that baby up?

“Just don’t hit my wood wall or I’ll kill you,” Leibrock says.

Why, you might wonder, would anyone — especially someone who was twice ranked No. 1 in age 30 and older tennis doubles in Utah — be so hung up on wheelchair access?

Leibrock, whose father was a mineralogist and whose mother was a nurse at the Craig Hospital in Denver, a leading rehabilitation center, has a ready answer.

“I have a brother who has schizophrenia, and he was inappropriately housed in institutions and nursing homes when I was younger, and I saw how much suffering that caused,” she says.

“The honest truth is the gross things, the aesthetics of rehab hospitals repulsed me,” she says. “I wanted to stay as far away from it as possible.”