Students to evaluate businesses for ‘senior-friendly’ designation

Interior design students at Western Carolina University will evaluate commercial spaces in Haywood County for “senior-friendliness” as part of a service-learning project to be launched in April.

The students are seeking the cooperation of businesses of all types, from banks and doctor’s offices to grocery stores and restaurants, willing to participate in the study.

Students will gauge the readiness of Waynesville and other Haywood towns for the senior-friendly designation. The first group will visit businesses in Waynesville during the last week of April. The evaluations will focus on accessibility to buildings and maneuverability within interior spaces.

The project comes as the population of aging Americans continues to grow dramatically, said Candace Roberts, WCU assistant professor of interior design who is directing the students.

“Students are being trained to evaluate commercial environments from the viewpoint of older adult consumers,” said Roberts. “Previous class training at the sophomore level included maneuvering a campus building in wheelchairs and walkers, and using crutches to simulate physical limitations that anyone can experience at some point in his or her life, such as a temporary disability of an injured leg or arm.”

The interior design program at WCU encompasses training in designing for people in need of structural accommodations. Training exercises include simulations in loss of dexterity, vision changes and hearing loss.

“The purpose of these hands-on exercises is for students to learn by doing and to understand the importance of designing interior and exterior spaces that go beyond what is specified in the Americans with Disabilities Act,” said Roberts. “By engaging students in this service-learning project, they will help meet the needs of senior citizens and make a difference in the community by solving real design problems.”

The service-learning project is being organized in conjunction with Haywood Community Connections, a local support project funded by the Community Partnerships for Older Adults initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The WCU Center for Service Learning is providing administrative assistance.

The project is expected to be expanded to Canton and Maggie Valley later this year.

Haywood will be the second county in the state to seek the “senior-friendly” designation. Participating businesses receiving the designation will carry a sticker on their door or window assuring older adults that the place is accessible to them and that the employees understand the needs of older adults.

Interested business owners should contact Roberts prior to Wednesday, April 14, by phone at 828-227-2151, by cell phone at 336-403-6482, or by e-mail at croberts@wcu.edu.