In the U.S., the average home is designed and constructed for young, active nuclear families, but composition of the average American household (and society as a whole) has changed significantly over the last several decades. For example, the population is aging rapidly, and research shows that the majority of older Americans intend to remain in their current homes for as long as possible. As such, seniors’ longtime homes—and even newer builds—aren’t necessarily suited to accommodate their evolving needs and abilities. This mismatch can make it difficult, unsafe or even impossible for older adults to realize their goal of aging in place. Fortunately, modifications and adaptations can create a senior-friendly home that enhances safety and promotes lasting independence.
Goals of Home Modification for Seniors
When creating an age friendly living space, the focus should always be on increasing and improving the following five elements:
It is impossible to make any home totally accident-proof, so that should not be the main goal of home modification. Instead, the emphasis should be on preserving and strengthening an older adult’s existing capabilities (and anticipating future limitations if possible). Furthermore, the homeowner(s) must recognize and accept the need for modifying their house and should be involved as much as possible in the process. Forcing unwelcome changes on a reluctant loved one would be contrary to the goal of enhancing their independence. Of course, instances in which a senior is living with dementia and unable to participate in such decisions are the exception.
While comfort and convenience are at the bottom of this list, they should still factor into any home modification decisions. Aesthetics and appearances matter, too. One of the biggest advantages of aging in place is that an elder can remain in a familiar and highly personalized home setting. In addition to a real and symbolic loss of independence, moving to a senior living facility represents the loss of a personal “sense of place.” That is, the collection of familiar furnishings, colors, textures and surroundings that hold years of memories and add meaning and enjoyment to one’s daily life.
Even if an aging loved one is on board with the modification process, make sure their house still remains their home as you draw up plans together. Look for products, designs and finishes that facilitate independent living and fit their taste and style. These days, many products, appliances, fixtures and features are designed to seamlessly integrate into any home without looking “institutional” or interfering with the desired aesthetic.
When to Begin the Home Modification Process
The best time to start thinking about aging in place and home modifications is long before the need actually arises—which can happen suddenly and urgently. Ideally, people who are confident that they’re living in their “forever home” should factor their long-term care plans into their routine home improvements and repairs.
For example, grab bars are a common addition in seniors’ homes. A homeowner who is updating their bathroom would be wise to ensure there are strong studs or other supports in the right spots for future grab bar installations—even if they don’t want or need them yet. It might also be worth considering replacing a traditional shower/tub with a curbless shower design.
Thinking ahead during renovations and remodels can save headaches, time and money in the long run. It also allows homeowners to carefully plan and budget for the updates they want now and the modifications they’re likely to need in the future.
Start By Conducting a Home Assessment
Before making any changes, walk through the home to evaluate each room. For adults who are still generally in good health and living independently, this may simply involve reflecting on the accessibility and functionality of the house through the lens of universal design. Those who are already experiencing some challenges with activities of daily living (ADLs) should go through their normal routines in each room and note any potential hazards or hindrances that must be addressed. It often helps to have a family member observe a senior’s schedule and note what they see. An occupational therapist can even conduct a home visit and make expert recommendations for products and/or modifications that will improve safety, functionality and comfort.
After completing the assessment, compile a list of changes that are essential to the well-being and self-sufficiency of the senior. This list will be useful for prioritizing certain projects and purchases and comparing estimates, if you choose to hire workers to handle certain modifications.
Make Low-Cost or Do-It-Yourself Modifications
Some of the simplest home modifications for the elderly don’t involve messy demolition or a big outlay. If an aging loved one is on a budget or larger adaptations aren’t feasible for other reasons, even small changes and inexpensive products can improve their safety and quality of life.
For example, installing swing-clear hinges will add about two inches of clearance to an existing doorway to better accommodate a mobility aid like a walker. A handheld shower head attachment and transfer bench can make bathing much more comfortable and less exhausting. And switching out knob-style hardware on doors, cabinets and furniture with levered door handles and larger pulls can make it easier for a senior with poor grip strength and/or dexterity to access rooms and items throughout the home. Other important objectives might include taking steps to prevent falls, compensate for changes in vision and hearing loss, and ensure emergency preparedness. It’s also helpful to explore other ideas and products for aging in place.
Hiring a Senior Home Modification Contractor
Home design for aging adults is a newer concept that has quickly gained traction. Initially, it focused on broad home adaptations, such as single level living and the installation of ramps and handrails. However, an emphasis on refining smaller details in each room has helped to better support seniors’ wishes to remain as independent as possible in their own homes.
It’s important to understand that many beautiful and aesthetically pleasing designs are not necessarily functional for persons with limited mobility, low vision or impaired hearing. If you are planning an extensive home modification or even a large project like a bathroom remodel, it's advisable to work with a licensed architect or design professional who has substantial experience in accommodating the needs of older people. The architect's or designer's fee will add to the cost but may save you from making even more expensive mistakes. If you do not know a licensed architect, contact the American Institute of Architects (AIA) for a referral to an affiliated member or firm in your area.
Whether you’re working with a local handyman, an architect or a contractor, be sure to obtain and check references. Ask for the names of several former clients in your area and ask if the person you plan to hire starts and finishes jobs in a timely manner, sticks as closely as possible to the budget, keeps their clients informed about potential cost overruns, maintains a clean and orderly site, responds to calls promptly and is generally pleasant. Always remember to get a written agreement stating the terms of the work arrangement and detailing the fees involved.
Ask yourself the following questions before proceeding with any home modifications:
- Have you interviewed and obtained written estimates and/or comparable bids when considering the hiring of an architect, designer or contractor? Are costs clearly spelled out in writing along with a detailed plan?
- Is the professional with whom you choose to work licensed by the appropriate state agency and experienced in modifications for the elderly?
- Have you checked the person’s references and researched their standing with the Better Business Bureau, state/local consumer agencies and professional associations?
- Is the professional adequately insured for property damage and personal liability?
- Does your written contract contain start and completion dates, a payment schedule, penalties for lateness, responsibility for obtaining permits and complying with applicable building and housing codes, and a contingency for failure to obtain required inspections?
Costs of Aging in Place Modifications
Of course, home modification expenses vary widely depending on the size of a particular project. Factors like appliances, materials, structural changes and labor will all impact the cost estimates for a remodel or renovation. However, it’s worth noting that incorporating universal design features in a new build rather than as a retrofit can significantly reduce costs.
On the other end of the spectrum, a handyman will cost $60 to $125 per hour according to HomeAdvisor. Hiring a handyman to help address some of the smaller needs in a longtime residence adds a degree of professionalism to many home modifications. Local Area Agency on Aging programs often provide referrals to licensed individuals who are experienced in making modifications for older adults and individuals with disabilities.