Making Home Safer For Seniors: A Room-by-Room Assessment

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With the population aging, universal design has become a hot topic. Seniors want to stay in their homes and age in place rather than be segregated in older adult communities or assisted living communities. How does universal design help them do so? By creating a home environment, both inside and outside a home, as well as a host of products, which make it more possible for everyone to use their home comfortably and safely.

Home Modifications for Aging In Place

Almost every room and area of a house can be adapted for universal design. Certain features should be used throughout the home such as light switches no higher than 48 inches so everyone can reach them, at least a 32 to 36-inch clearance for doors so wheelchairs can maneuver fully, and outlets no less than 18 inches from the floor, says Nanette Overly, vice president of sales and marketing for Epcon Communities in Dublin, Ohio, which focuses on condo communities in 32 states.

In addition, window treatments can be installed with a remote control device so shades don't have to be raised and lowered or pulled side to side, which can add strain, says Markman-Stern. Abundant lighting should be included since low-vision seniors may require up to five times the amount of light for "average" tasks, says Brooke Ziccardi of Ziccardi Designs Inc. in Costa Mesa, Calif.

Entryways

  • Besides a zero-step entranceway at the front door, a side or back door and door from a garage into the house should be step-free. Door widths should be 36 inches rather than 2'6" for easy maneuverability; hallways should be at least 60 inches wide for a good turning radius.
  • Walking paths should be wide enough for someone using a wheelchair or walker.
  • Stepless entries make it easier and safer to gain access, whether the person is in a wheelchair or using a walker or cane.

Kitchen

  • Cabinets should have easy to operate levers rather than knobs and the majority should be placed under the counter.
  • Oven controls should be placed at the front of the range rather than toward the rear for less stretching.
  • Counters should be at different heights to accommodate the different heights of users.
  • If eyesight is poor, contrasting colors or materials can help someone differentiate different zones.
  • A kitchen with mostly undercounter cabinets helps someone short and frail avoid having to step on a stool to reach high cabinets.
  • Wood, vinyl, or tiled unpolished flooring with a lot of grout will be easier on feet and reduce falls.
  • If hearing is poor, flashing lights on appliances rather than bells can alert someone that dinner's ready.

Bathrooms

  • Grab bars to grasp whether using a toilet or getting into and out of a shower are essential and designs today look sculptural. If homeowners aren't yet ready to incorporate this feature they can have blocking installed behind walls, which will cut the expense later.
  • Abundant lighting for overall ambience as well as tasks is essential and special waterproof incandescent lights should be placed in the ceiling of a shower and over a tub for extra care.
  • Showers should have a step-free entry and many tub models are available with a door that allows a person to enter. Both should be fitted with a seat, hand-held sprayers, anti-scald valves and niches to hold soap and shampoo at a level that can be reached.
  • Floors should be slip-resistant wood, vinyl or tile with a lot of grout for traction.
  • The height of counters should be flexible, but 34" allows someone in a wheelchair to pull up to a sink. "That counter also should have a kneehole for comfort," says Markman-Stern.
  • All cabinets and drawers should be fitted with levers rather than knobs.
  • A comfort-height toilet model should be selected that's 2" higher than normal and easier to transfer onto from a wheelchair; a wall-flush valve makes flushing easier.
  • Lighting along a hallway floor can provide a clear path to a bathroom in the dead of night when eyesight is failing.
  • Curbless showers with a bench allow someone to roll a wheelchair in and bathe.

Laundry Room Equipment

  • Front-loading appliances are easier to reach than top-loading models.
  • Access among levels. In multi-story homes, an elevator can be installed for those not able to climb stairs, or if not needed a space the size of a closet can be left to finish later.

Costs of Aging in Place Modifications

While some developers, builders, architects, designers, and even homeowners have resisted incorporating universal design from fear that it will increase costs, most in the field say the expenses are fairly small, compared with overall housing costs and paybacks.

Builder Roy Wendt, head of Wendt Builders Inc. in Grayson, Ga., near Atlanta, estimates that the universal design features he includes in his adult active ranch homes add only $500 per house. Will Johnson, a builder based in Pittsboro, N.C., near Chapel Hill, agrees that $500 can buy numerous universal design features, but he also says that certain items will up that number such as zero-steps from a garage into a house if there's a steep grade, a curbless shower, and any cabinetry modification. "The price can sometimes go up to $5,000," he says.

Johnson has found that a bit of creativity also helps. He became interested in the universal design field 12 years ago when his father had a stroke. "He was living in an older home and couldn't get to the upstairs master bedroom or use the powder room since the doorway was only two feet. The house was unlivable for him but it was too expensive to retrofit," he says.

Johnson's solution was to build a new one-level house for his father. "It's totally accessible but you'd never know. We even painted rugs on the hardwood floor since we couldn't have rugs with the wheelchair. It's a joy to have wide hallways and no steps and not just for him—for all of us to be able to maneuver," he says.

By incorporating universal design features from the beginning rather than as a retrofit, costs go down remarkably—about one-third less, says Rebecca Stahr of LifeSpring Environs, an Atlanta consultancy for the 50-plus market.

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