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The magic of a friendly magnolia tree
Connecting to the world from home
My son wrote this sweet little ode to the magnolia tree in front of his window when he was eight years old. I came across it the other day as I was organizing drawers and it reminded me of another magnolia tree which played an important role in an older client’s life. A couple of years ago, a woman with MS hired me to remodel her home. She wanted me to make sure that when she eventually transitioned to using a wheelchair, she wouldn’t have to move.
As we talked about the project, it quickly became clear to me that an old magnolia tree living in her backyard meant a lot to her. She also spent a lot of her time with her cats who lived beyond the tree in the lower yard. Due to her MS, maintaining balance was a challenge, and navigating down the rickety staircase to get to her cats was a risky undertaking. So, I decided that her physical home needed to extend beyond the walls of her house to the magnolia tree and her cats.
We added a French door to the living room so that the tree became a natural extension of the indoor space. Not only could she see it, unobscured through the glass, but she could also easily access her deck to spend time in the shady canopy of her magnificent magnolia. We designed the deck so that there would be no elevation change between the spaces, allowing her wheelchair easy access to the outdoors. Knowing that the company of her cats would be a source of delight in the future as it was then, I designed a path with the slope of a wheelchair ramp, enabling to access the enclosure where her cats lived. The path curved from the deck and around the magnolia and onto a brick patio. While we could’ve easily put in a standard ramp, we agreed that delight is an important quality of healthy living.
But so is comfort.
Warm water felt good to her, so we put a hot tub on the deck. Since the hot tub wasn’t just an amenity, but also a source of comfort, we went to the store to try them out, swimsuit in hand. When we got there, she changed into her suit and started testing the different options for easy access. We also wanted to determine where she might need an extra handle. We discussed the best technique with the salesperson for opening and closing the heavy tub cover. At the house, we installed a power source close to the tub so that in the future she could add a tub lift.
I also suggested an outdoor shower that she could access from the bedroom, knowing that her bathroom inside didn’t feature a window out to the yard. Now, she would be able to leave the hot tub, walk a short distance to the shower and enjoy a view of the magnolia tree through the shower’s cedar slats.
As an architect specializing in age-friendly design, I’ve learned how important it is to listen to what my clients need. In this case, we worked together as a team to create a home that would continue to support her independence as her MS progressed. A home that included her cats and her magnolia tree – everything that was important to her.
She sent me a note after the project was completed letting me know that her world was at home and she was perfectly at home within it. She didn’t really feel the need to go out much.
Below, we’ve compiled a small list of facts and tips inspired by this project that might help you to be at home with growing older.
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WALKWAYS & RAMPS
The typical maximum slope for comfortable use with a manual wheelchair: 1:12. The ramp raises 1 foot across a distance of 12 feet.
The typical upper rail height on a walkway or ramp is between 32 inches and 36 inches.
I believe in choice:
There are no official regulations when it comes to creating a ramp in a private home, but navigating steeper walkways and ramps with a hand-propelled wheelchair would take too much muscle power. With an electric wheelchair a steeper ramp is possible (1½:12).
It is nice to have an upper and a lower rail on a ramp so you have a choice where you put your hand.
Sloped walkways are not only for wheelchair users, they are good for everything on wheels, from shopping carts to strollers to bicycles.
Test what feels good for you when you go out. Take a tape measure and record your experiences with rails. We all have different bodies and our home should fit us like a glove. Standards are a good place of departure but you are the judge. It pays off to be thorough and test what works for you like my client did.
Some other thoughts:
Make sure walking surfaces are even. As we age, it becomes more difficult to react to obstacles on the ground. Even a little unevenness, something a young person might not even notice, can be treacherous for older adults. If you do not have a smooth walkway, mark the protrusions with some spray paint - not that pretty but a saver!
In my client’s outdoor shower, we installed a body dryer because toweling off proved to be a challenge as her MS progressed. There’s no specific product that we recommend, but just googling “body dryer” could give you some ideas. Some options are plug-ins and easy to install.