Edith Wichser lives in suburban Atlanta and is caring for her 97-year-old father-in-law, Bill. As he has aged, Bill has required increasing care and supervision, so Edith and her husband Karl decided to have Dad move in with them. However, this decision required the Wichsers to make some major adjustments to their home.
To provide a suitable and comfortable space for Dad, they worked with a renovation company to finish their full basement, creating a bedroom, living area, kitchen and office. Wichser details the renovation process, including the challenges she didn’t expect and her preparations for the possibility of Bill’s growing medical needs.
Consider Current and Future Medical Conditions
The Wichsers carefully considered Bill’s current and future needs when deciding how to adapt their home. Edith notes that her father-in-law has experienced some age-related decline but does not have any chronic illnesses. Depending on how he’s feeling, Bill uses a walker at times for extra support. Although he is not in a wheelchair now, the family wanted to prepare for that possibility, so they incorporated many of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards in their designs.
For example, the ADA requires a minimum door width of three feet for wheelchair access. The Wichsers went a step further by adding double doors to the entrance of Bill’s master bedroom, so that a bed could be rolled through in case of an emergency. Similarly, French patio doors were installed to provide access to the ground-level terrace. This consideration allows for easy entry and exit for Bill and first responders.
Flooring, Colors and Interior Home Modifications
For interior mobility, the Wichsers used low-pile commercial carpet that a wheelchair could easily roll over. Tile and other hard flooring options were undesirable because they pose a more significant fall risk.
Bill has macular degeneration, so the space was modified to provide as much natural light as possible to maximize his vision. Light colors were chosen for the carpet and paint to keep the space brighter as well. A storm door was added to the entry so that the solid door could be left open for even more natural light.
Electrical outlets were raised from the standard height of 12 inches to 18 inches off the ground. Higher outlets can be accessed from a seated position and minimize the need to lean or bend down to plug things in.
The Wichsers chose to add a walk-in shower with grab bars and a built-in bench so Bill is able to sit while bathing. A wide entry with no threshold also allows a wheelchair to enter the space for transfer to the shower seat. They installed a standard showerhead for overhead use as well as a hand-held version to allow for better direction of the spray while seated.
In consideration of Bill’s arthritis, lever-style faucet handles were used to enable operation of the sink and shower without having to grip and turn. The Wichsers chose a chair-height commode with a lever flush mechanism. At 36 inches high, the bathroom countertops are compliant with ADA accessibility standards. The bathroom has plenty of grab bars (three in the shower and one near the toilet) for maximum stability while transferring between spaces.
The Challenges of Creating a Stepless Living Space
The Wichsers started with a pre-poured concrete slab in their basement. The biggest challenge throughout the remodel was creating a slope in the bathroom to avoid installing a threshold in the shower. A drainage slope was created by manipulating the floor.
In order to brighten the kitchen space, light colors were used for the cabinets, appliances and countertops, and contrasting red accents were chosen for accessories like cutting boards and utensils. For safety reasons, the Wichsers chose to install an electric stove instead of gas, to avoid the risk of open flames. An additional benefit of the electric range is that the burners turn red when hot. When the cook surface is cool, it’s black. This is especially helpful for Bill, since he can see contrasting colors better.
Depth perception is an additional concern. Placing a red rubber mat in the sink provides some contrast so Bill can detect the bottom of the basin. To avoid accidents, very few of his dishes are glass. Instead, they stocked the kitchen with light yet durable dishware made of acrylic and melamine.
Instead of standard, narrow toggle switches, the Wichsers installed flat, wide rocker switches and dimmers throughout the basement. Bill has limited dexterity in his hands and the bigger switches are easier for him to feel and operate. Lamps and desk lighting controlled by wall switches brighten individual task spaces. Recessed lighting provides plenty of artificial light with minimal glare, which can be bothersome to individuals with low vision. The kitchen features under-cabinet lighting and pendant lighting over the sink as well. Installing dimmers and using different wattages throughout the area allows Bill to adapt the lighting as needed, depending on the time of day and the amount of natural light that is available.
Access to the Main Level
Adding a chair lift was too much of a challenge during this initial project, because the stairs from the basement to the main level are narrow and slightly curved. Fortunately, Bill is still able to manage the 16 steps between the basement and main floor. In the future, if his mobility declines, they will tackle the stair challenge with a company that specializes in accessibility solutions for seniors.
A Successful Home Modification
The Wichsers consider the renovation to be a resounding success. They accomplished the goal of welcoming Dad into a safe, comfortable space without making him feel like he’s living in the basement. Bill is able to enjoy his own customized space in close proximity to family and assistance, should he need it.