An Interview with Alesha Churba, Design with the Future in Mind



This continues our series on interviews with major aging in place gurus. Our first interview was with Laurie Orlov about aging in place technology and can be found here. As I explained in this earlier post, aging-in-place gurus have concentrated on helping seniors stay safely in their homes, and landscaping and gardening issues are not really very high on their radar. Using ramps to get into the home when necessary, and paving entrances, are about as much that is covered at the present time. However, their concerns are relevant to all of us who devoutly want to age in place. I’m heading towards 70 and hope to be able to stay in my home until I’m at least 90 (about the average age of those in assisted living according to Laurie Orlov), so I want to take the advice of the aging in place experts I will be interviewing, and I hope, so do you! In the future, I can always hire out the maintenance of the exterior but I have to stumble around my interiors whatever their condition!

Our interview today is with Alesha E. Churba, Certified Aging in Place Specialist, who is a professional technical educator, and program coordinator at Idaho State University. She writes about aging in place and designing for comfort, low maintenance and safety.

Elsie and John and me An Interview with Alesha Churba, Design with the Future in Mind

Center: Alesha Churba with her parents

Alesha is an instructor in the CADD Program at the Idaho State University College of Technology where she instructs students in Computer Aided Design Drafting subjects that include residential design, commercial drafting, BIM, and structural drafting technology. Alesha writes & speaks about Aging in Place home adaptations to create a safe & comfortable home for now & for the future. She holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Family and Consumer Economics and an Associate of Applied Science Degree in Design Drafting, and is working on her Masters Degree in Training and Development, all from Idaho State University. She is a Certified Aging in Place Specialist through the NAHB. She has completed training in NKBA Kitchen and Bath Design and Continuing Education in a variety of design subjects. She is also a Certified Drafter through the American Design Drafter Association.

Alesha, tell us how you got involved in aging in place:

I worked as an interior designer for a commercial architectural firm and became the “go to” person for accessibility design.  At one point I was affectionately (I think) referred to as the “Potty Queen” since I did all of the restroom design projects, including hospital and assisted living projects.  It was because of these projects and going through the existing state-run or hospital assisted living spaces that I became involved in design for our seniors. Walking through, my heart ached to see what our seniors were experiencing.  This experience and dealing with my own parents and their need for safety, comfort and low maintenance lead me to my desire to learn about to Aging in Place design. I experienced first-hand the need for knowledge and action. 

traditional  An Interview with Alesha Churba, Design with the Future in Mind

Because of leading-edge Baby Boomers beginning to retire, is there a groundswell for aging in place design or is it still too soon?

I think in some areas of the United States, this is catching on, while in other areas, it is too soon.  I also know from personal and professional experience, discussing this subject is somewhat taboo because no one wants to see himself or herself as getting older or becoming limited in any way.  I see with my own parents and even with clients the resistance to the concept, because of pride. 

It is very hard to accept that our bodies are changing with age and we can’t quite do what we used to do.  I even had a client who had researched me and was in her 60’s tell me that she didn’t need to deal with aging in place design because she and her husband were not at that age yet…  as she limped and struggled to go up and down a flight of stairs.

stair lift images An Interview with Alesha Churba, Design with the Future in Mind

stair lift

I also see so much of the public’s concept of design comes from HGTV and from spec homes done by builders, who get their wives to do the interiors without any knowledge except making it look pretty.  This creates a disconnect between quality, functional design and public perception and expectations. The general population is not really thinking about functionality, or how will they maintain their space when they are older; they are looking for what is hot right now. 

 Is the present economic climate still too much in a downturn?

I think in some respects, yes, the economic climate is still in a downturn for many.  I know that my own parents cannot afford to remodel or move because they are trying to live on the same pension they received 25 years ago.  Everything has gone up in price but my dad’s pension hasn’t, so they have to try to get by with what they have.  This makes any kind of maintenance or remodeling almost prohibitive.  An example is their roof: they need a new roof but they can’t afford it, so they keep calling the roofing people who come out, patch it, charge them lots of money, only to have another leak start in another place.  It is really a catch-22 for our seniors.

Additionally, I think the baby-boomer generation is not looking to the future, so they are not even considering aging in place for the most part.  So many of them have not even saved for their retirements! They really don’t get the concept of needing aging in place planning, so that is why getting the information out there and educating is so important. If they have a life-changing accident or sudden health issue for themselves or their parents, they may be in real trouble if they have to modify their homes to accommodate themselves/parent and stay living at home . Such crises don’t always end with well-thought-out results.

What are the biggest technological changes you are seeing coming to market?

Again, I think the disconnect between what seniors (the generation before the boomers) can do and what is available is huge.  Many seniors have never even used a computer and are frightened of technology.  They don’t trust technology either.  Our seniors (again, we not talking about baby-boomers) were around when the television first came out and telephones still had party lines.  Those were marvels to them and asking them to become familiar with fast-paced technology is a stretch.  My own mother cannot figure out how to send texts from her phone and she is pretty savvy for a 76 year old!  My father has never touched a computer and never will.  They frighten him, though he will never admit it. 

I think the technology we should be concentrating on is how to make everything easier and innately understood for all ages — be it a cell phone, a light switch, or even a safety monitor. That is why the technology Laurie Orlov talks about is so important!

kid videcon with grandparents An Interview with Alesha Churba, Design with the Future in Mind

Sharing faces with grandparents (NY Times)

Are industries jostling to be first to market, or already on an “improve on the invention” path? Do you have difficulty finding contractors who can carry out your design ideas in institutions or in the home?

I am on a mission to educate, more than anything else.  I am not doing any designing right now because of my full-time teaching, being a single parent and taking care of my aging parents.  There just isn’t any time left, frankly. 

Additionally, I have difficulty in getting clients to want to choose accessibility options and contractors who think they know more than the designer because they have been doing it their way for 35 years, etc.  I recently had a client who had me do plans for her and her husband so they could age in place but she decided she knew better than I did and changed the plans after they were completed.  She now has a two foot wide, all-tile shower with a four inch threshold and her husband had knee replacement surgery. You can lead a person to knowledge, but you can’t make them think…

Who are your customers for aging in place, organizations or individuals? Are you seeing much interest in aging in place in countries and cultures other than in the U.S.? What public organizations seem most interested in the aging boomer marketplace?

Since I am really just trying to educate and get the word out, I guess my customers would be just about anyone who will listen.  I am passionate about helping people to make educated choices and consider the future and their safety and comfort.

Blog shot An Interview with Alesha Churba, Design with the Future in Mind

Design with the Future in Mind

I notice that I have a lot of industry folks from Europe and Canada who are moving toward aging in place principles and they are looking for information.  I also find the Midwest is very active in sharing and trying to make a difference, followed closely by the Eastern United States.  Architects are catching on, as are some forward thinking designers.  I have been asked previously in this area (S.E. Idaho) by the Area Agency on Aging to speak about home modifications for Alzheimer’s sufferers.  I have guest hosted on many Tweetchats about aging in place and have written information for the Caregiver Partnership and some other groups also helping to spread information about aging in place. 

Who else do you partner with to get the word out? And what is “the word” concerning aging in place design that you want to spread?

I don’t really partner with anyone specifically to get the word out.  I try to share as much information through my blog, on Twitter and on Facebook about Aging in Place.  There are many notables who are doing a great job of getting information out there including Dr. Patrick Roden (www.aginginplace.com) and Aaron Murphy (http://www.empoweringthematuremind.com/), Tom and Lynn Wilson (the Caregiver Partnership), Gail Zahtz (http://www.gailzahtz.com/) and Marcela Abadi-Rhoades (http://www.abadiaccess.com/) among many others. The word I want to spread is “design with your future in mind.” Please think about safety, comfort and low maintenance.

goodgrips888cf27e0e9000d59e809a4b633c4f28 An Interview with Alesha Churba, Design with the Future in Mind

There are many good ideas on Alesha’s Pinterest board

If there is one thing individuals should do for themselves to age in place, what would that be? For their parents? For their children? For their community?

My best words of advice are to educate yourself and consider using a Certified Aging in Place Specialist (listed on the NAHB websites) to help you with making the right choices.  Please start thinking about design, not just “the pretty or cool looks.”  You are not going to want to strip and wax a wood floor when you are 60.

Incidentally, Alesha has an e-book available “Home Adaptations” to help us learn about adaptations to the home that make it easier for the caregiver and the person with Alzheimer’s and related diseases. It is just as applicable to anyone planning to age in place. The objective of this booklet is to share information so you have a better idea of what to do around the home if you care for or know of someone who has Alzheimer’s disease. You will gather some ideas and information about safety precautions to put in place around the home. Lastly, you will receive information on low maintenance choices and why choosing low maintenance finishes are beneficial to the caregiver and the person with Alzheimer’s disease.

Follow Alesha on her blog at Design with the Future in Mind

Tweet her at  twitter.com/@AEChurba

Like her Facebook page at : A.E.Churba Design> Helping You Design With the Future in Mind

Connect with her at LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/company/a.e.churba-design-llc

and follow her pins on Pinterest: www.pinterest.com/AEChurba/

Thank you so much, Alesha, for your insights and guidance! What additional thoughts do our readers have about aging in place?

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About shenandoah

Hi! I'm Shenandoah, an ancient gardener, attempting to age in place at home and in my garden. I'm in dream zone 7a able to grow just about anything. I want to help others plan their garden and living experience to age in place and never grow old in their hearts!

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