We’re getting more questions about remodeling and designing for aging in place, whether it’s for older parents or homeowners planning for the years ahead. We’re not alone. According to AARP, more than half of baby boomers surveyed say aging in place is a major long-term care concern. There are more temporary concerns, too, as hip and knee replacement patients get younger. Recovery for both surgeries make getting around quite difficult for a while. And families with a family member with disabilities use the universal design principles that an aging-in-place remodel follow.
As much as people want to change their homes to make them easier to live in, many fear their house will end up looking cold, institutional, and — well — ugly.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The principles of universal design are adaptable to suit your tastes — from historic heritage to sleek modernism — without sacrificing style. It’s all about creating or modifying spaces to accommodate loss of mobility or dexterity or failing vision.
The fixes range from pretty simple to more intensive.
There are some small things you can tackle as a homeowner or call in a handy man.
- Swap out doorknobs for lever handles on inside and outside doors.
- In the kitchen and bathroom, faucets with levers — single or double — are easier to use and adjust. You’ll find lever options in all styles, finishes, and price points.
- Controls should be moved to be accessible to those in wheelchairs. That means lowering light switches to 42-48 inches above the floor, and using rocker or touch switches.
- Thermostats shouldn’t be higher than 48 inches from the floor. Electrical outlets will move up the walls, 18-24 inches above floor level.
Take care with rug or doormat placements — they can be a trip hazard for those using walkers or canes. High-pile carpet can hinder moving and maneuvering a wheelchair — whether you’re in it or pushing from behind.
Take an inventory of night lights and whether you can get rooms bright enough to help those with reduced vision. You may need to add more lights, but boosting the wattage in your current scheme will help too.
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While some folks set out to remodel to take aging concerns head on, others incorporate the principles into more general renovation projects. Bathroom remodels easily absorb universal design principles that make use easier for everyone — not just people with mobility, vision, or dexterity issues.
When remodeling, consider widening doorways and hallways — many older homes with narrow door passages aren’t wide enough to get a walker or wheelchair through. Even taking a door off doesn’t always create enough room. The National Association of Home Builders advises a 36-inch width for hall passages and doors.
Adding or expanding windows lets in more light, brightening a room during the day, and making it easier to read or move about confidently.
A full bath on the main living floor is recommended by the experts, ideally with a zero-entry shower.
That means no curb or lip. When creating an accessible bath, reinforce the walls so grab bars can bear weight. If you add a bench in the shower, make sure shower controls are in easy reach. A well-made teak bench can be more versatile than a built-in. Bathroom floors should be non-slip.
A taller toilet with well-placed grab bars make a world of difference, and the toilet paper dispenser must be close by. As we age, we start to lose our sense of balance, and flexibility also fades.
Changing flooring throughout your home is a big project, but makes an enormous difference for those who need mobility assists like walkers, canes, or wheelchairs. Hardwood is a great choice, but whatever you pick, it should be smooth, not shiny, and slip-resistant.
If you’re looking at a kitchen re-do, here are some things to keep in mind:
- Best floor choices include wood, cork, or vinyl, which aren’t as hard on a cook’s back, hips, and knees as tile.
- Think about creating seated workstations, with room for a chair or wheelchair beneath. Many cabinet makers have options like drawers that pull out to become a counter extension at a custom height.
- Raising cabinets at least nine inches off the floor with six-inch deep toe-kicks creates room for wheelchair-users' feet beneath.
- Raise or lower appliance locations for easy use.
- Vary the color in surfaces: counters, cabinets, and the floor should be distinct to help in depth perception.
There's a lot more to consider when undertaking a universal design remodel — including how to get in and out of the house. But a smart renovation will result in a home that's beautiful and embracing to everyone.