Age-in-Place Home Improvements for Seniors

Age-in-Place Home Improvements: A Room-by-Room Guide

Seniors at HomeAs homeowners enter their golden years, some might prefer to stay in their homes as long as they can — commonly called “aging in place.” This can be a more complicated task than a lot of people realize, especially if they have older homes or houses with multiple floors. Taking a systematic approach to people’s needs for aging in place yields a long list of tasks. Completing most of them in advance can provide a better guarantee of accessibility for residents even decades into the future. This guide helps homeowners determine various aspects they should consider in each room, and ways they can improve their accessibility. Although most people might not require every measure in order to be able to remain independent in their homes, the knowledge will make planning the most important home improvements more effective. On the other hand, some may decide these modifications are not realistic for their current situation and will opt for moving to a new home or assisted living community. Some homes – such as designated historic homes – may be difficult if not impossible to alter to a significant degree. At the end of the day, housing choices are all about what makes the most sense for an individual’s wants and needs, and knowledge can help us make these informed decisions with confidence.

Bathrooms

Grab Bars

Installing grab bars at a few different points in the bathroom can provide greater safety and stability for those that could benefit from assistance standing up or sitting down. Even if people do not need to rely on grab bars on a regular basis, they can be handy tools to use in recovery after injury or surgery. As a general rule, grab bars are not exceptionally expensive. Homeowners may need to install several near the toilet and shower or bathing facilities, in a variety of sizes. With a proper installation, a grab bar should support a person’s bodyweight as they sit on a toilet or climb in and out of a tub or shower.

Senior Grab Bar

Although installation can be completed by a savvy homeowner, some may choose to add grab bars as part of a professional bathroom remodeling project. This equipment should be rated to hold 250-300 pounds of weight. In order to do this, each end of the bar needs to be installed directly into a wall stud. In most homes, studs will be placed 16”-24” apart, which may affect the size of the bar homeowners can choose. Installation around a toilet may only take an hour or two. Placement in an existing bath or shower could require removing tiles or cutting into the shower surround. People should consult an expert before doing this, to confirm that they will not damage the fixtures.

There are a variety of sizes, colors and styles for grab bars. Ideal choices feature grips. The preferred length for the bar depends on its placement. Experts suggest using 32” bars for horizontal applications near toilets or inside the shower. Bars for vertical or angled installation range from 8”-24”. To promote safety, the equipment should leave no more than about 1.5” of space between the bar and the wall.

Flooring

The most trendy flooring for the bathroom may not always be the ideal choice as people get older. Providing a surface that is fairly easy to clean with the least likelihood of injury from falling is usually the preferred option. Many homeowners considering flooring upgrades for bathrooms think of hardwood or tile, because they provide a classic and contemporary look. However, any hard, smooth surface can become slippery and make for a much more uncomfortable landing during a fall.

Before making a choice, homeowners should look at their budget and the longevity of the flooring options they want. Professionals often prefer rubber flooring because it is non-slip and offers a softer surface (although it can be more expensive). As an alternative, vinyl tile or plank flooring can give the appearance of hardwood or tile, with easy maintenance and a slip-resistant surface. Cork may feel softer and warmer under feet, but it must be properly sealed to be appropriate for bathrooms. Some people choose to install carpet, which is also soft and warm. However, it is important to understand that carpet is harder to clean and can breed mildew or mold if it gets wet regularly.

Bathtubs

Bathtub for Seniors

For people with joint or mobility issues, getting into and out of the bathtub can become a challenge. Homeowners can plan for this possibility by considering their bathing needs and expectations. Some people with multiple bathrooms decide to convert one bathtub into a shower-only space for convenience and accessibility. Others choose to install what is called a “walk-in bathtub.” This style of bathtub uses a small door that can be closed with a tight seal, allowing the person to get in and out with only a little clearance. People who select this option should keep in mind that they will have to wait until the bathtub is fully drained before they can use the door to exit.

Budget-conscious homeowners may prefer to look at additions to their existing bathtub layout. Besides installing grab bars into the shower surround above the bathtub, people might consider placing a non-slip coating to the base of the bathtub. There are also inexpensive grab bars that attach to the side of the bathtub with a clamp, providing a simple installation that does not require drilling into wall studs.

Showers

Sometimes, it is difficult for homeowners to anticipate the kinds of mobility issues they will face 20-30 years down the road. How to manage hygiene is very important for people who want to age in place, and an accessible showering facility is a vital part of personal cleanliness. Homeowners should start with a quick analysis of their current showering facility. Narrow showers may make it more difficult to step in or turn around, especially for people who use a walker or a wheelchair to navigate the bathroom.

Many people eventually need or prefer having a place to sit while showering as they get older. Although there are many portable shower chairs, homeowners should make sure that the chair can remain in the shower without impeding other use of the space. If the existing shower cannot offer this room, homeowners may want to consider expanding the shower size. They should measure the height of the curb and decide if they need to install a model that provides a roll-in entrance. The faucet and shower head should be easy to reach from the seat. Adjustable shower heads can make it simple to take a shower while sitting or standing.

Toilets

Access to toilet facilities can get more difficult over time, especially for people with orthopedic concerns in their backs or legs. Toilets can be fairly inexpensive to replace, but people should consider their options before they make a selection. The height, depth, and placement of the toilet can make it easier or harder for people to use.

Toilets generally come in two heights: comfort and standard. Standard toilets rise 15” above the ground, and may be ideal for shorter people or those without joint concerns. By comparison, comfort height toilets sit at 17”-19”, which can be easier placement for taller homeowners or those with limited flexion in their legs. People who have standard toilets but need something taller could buy and install a toilet extender, which makes the seat higher without having to purchase a new toilet.

Toilets also come in different shapes. Homeowners with older toilets may have those in a compact shape, which is round and about 16”-17” deep. Elongated toilets look more like an oval and will stand out about 18”-19”. People often prefer the elongated toilets because the bowl offers more space. These may be harder to use in smaller bathrooms because they extend out further from the wall. Before homeowners switch to a bigger toilet, they should confirm that they can still get around the toilet and that the door will open and close fully. A toilet position that inhibits full movement in the bathroom may call for a redesign of the room’s layout.

Vanities

Bathroom Sink and Vanity

The height and depth of the bathroom vanity and mirror could mean the difference between being able to use it and not having full access. Having a deep cabinet may be convenient from a standpoint of storage, but less practical for people who need to reach the faucet while sitting in a wheelchair or supporting themselves using a walker. The counter and sink should be no more than 34” high, with a depth shallow enough that residents can reach to the back.

People should also be able to see themselves from the mirror while seated, as well. Those who choose to move the medicine cabinet may want to consider keeping their medicines in a safe, locked cabinet or safe in a room that is less prone to moisture. Homeowners who have limited space may opt to install a pedestal or wall sink instead of a vanity to make more room to move.

Bedrooms

Beds

There are four essential functions that homeowners should consider for their beds. These include:

  • climbing in bed
  • getting up and out of bed
  • maneuvering while in bed
  • sleeping safely and comfortably

All of these functions must be accessible in order for a mattress and bed frame to be a practical choice. People should also keep in mind that the average mattress will last 7-10 years. This offers the opportunity to upgrade accessibility over time.

For climbing in and getting out, the top of the mattress should be no more than 20”-23” above the floor. People may also want to add a tension-based grab bar next to the bed that runs floor to ceiling. These bars are easy to install or move and can often support an adult’s full body weight. Bed rails may also be used for additional support or simply to prevent a fall. Homeowners should confirm that the bedrail is rated to support enough weight, if they plan to have it double as a grab bar. Bedding should be lightweight and minimal in bulk, for easy movement and removal for washing. Firm mattresses are typically best to support the spine, keep a person’s airway open, and make rolling over easier.

Closets

Accessible Closet

Practically anyone could benefit from a closet overhaul in one way or another. Some extra insight into what people need as they age will improve their contentment over time. Adequate lighting is vital for people adjusting to vision concerns. Options may include overhead lighting with a switch or battery-powered LED lighting inside cabinets and under shelves.

Accessibility to closet storage without extra reaching is key. Walk-in closets should have a doorway that is at least 36” wide. Reach-in closets need doors that are easy to grasp open and closed without risk of pinching. People should target the layout of the closet to put the most commonly-used items at arm level. Drawers can decrease overextension in a deeper closet. Many homeowners may decide to relocate the hanging rod to a lower level, or install a pull-down bar. Pull-down shelving simplifies the process of putting items up high and maximizes space without requiring a stool.

Communication

The ability to communicate in case of an emergency is vital to a person’s health and safety. Many people are accustomed to keeping a mobile phone and plug on a nightstand next to the bed. This can be an ideal option, as long as homeowners can manage the cord without turning it into a tripping hazard. Otherwise, people might consider keeping a landline phone plugged in next to the bed. Homeowners may wish to put an extra pair of glasses next to the bed if they need them to read the numbers.

Beyond basic communication, some homeowners may decide to arrange for additional emergency services accessible from the bed. A medical alert system provides a service to people, usually on a subscription basis. Depending on the subscription, residents may be able to push a button to access a person who can help them determine if they need medical assistance.

Furniture

Senior Bedroom Furniture

When people consider furniture for the bedroom outside of the bed, they should ask the following questions:

  • Does this piece affect my ability to get around the room?
  • Will I be able to access all parts of this storage equipment?
  • Could it go in a place that does not hinder access to the bed?
  • Can I mount this furniture to avoid toppling?

Some people try to avoid installing support devices like grab bars, preferring to lean on furniture as needed. Many furniture pieces are not designed for this purpose, so homeowners should take extra care. A sturdy chair can make it easier to dress and undress. Tall furniture, such as a highboy dresser, should be anchored to the wall for safety. Nightstands need to be close enough for access while in bed without making it harder to get into or out of bed.

Floors

Experts often have mixed opinions on the best kind of flooring for the bedroom. The right choice depends on homeowners’ ability to move and maintain the material. Carpet is soft and warm, providing extra cushion in case of a fall. However, it is more difficult to clean and can slow down movement with mobility devices. Hardwood could be slippery and can feel cold to walk across in bare feet. Vinyl, laminate, or cork may be ideal for increased movement and a non-slip surface. People who choose solid flooring should usually avoid using floor rugs for comfort. They can dramatically increase the likelihood of a fall, especially for people who wear slippers or have restricted circulation. Using smooth mats with a beveled edge could provide additional support for homeowners who have trouble standing for longer periods without compromising safety or mobility.

Kitchen

Layout

Age-in-Place Kitchen

Maintaining mobility throughout the main living areas in a home is an important aspect of aging in place. People must be able to navigate around the kitchen and use it as normally as possible to help preserve their independence. Many kitchens, especially smaller spaces, may not be set up to offer maximum mobility for someone who uses a walker or wheelchair. Homeowners should consider how frequently and heavily they intend to use the kitchen and plan accordingly. For starters, placement on the main floor is important to keep the kitchen easily accessible.

When designing the layout, including doorways and the position of doorways and seating, people should confirm they have enough room to maneuver. New construction homes may tend to be a bit more maneuverable than older homes in this regard (due to current design trends). Doorways often need to be extended to at least 36” to guarantee access. Exterior doors may already meet that requirement, but many interior doors do not. Since people could need to turn around while using a mobility tool, experts recommend increasing clearance to 42”-48” between banks of cabinetry and countertops.

Countertops & Sinks

Kitchen countertops are an ideal place for storage, food preparation, serving, and sometimes eating. Setting the countertops at the right height could increase the amount of practical space. There are four essential size ranges for the kitchen:

  • Counter Height: 36”
  • Bar Height: 42”
  • Accessible Height: 28”-34”
  • Adjustable Counter: 28”-36”

In some cases, homeowners may wish to install countertops at various heights. This can improve use by residents of different heights or people who may want to stand or sit, depending on the occasion. Residents may need to find an alternate means of support for countertops that require seating or movement space underneath. Cabinets are usually built to standard or bar height, so homeowners should confirm that they get the right size to suit the desired counter height.

Deep sinks are popular at the moment, but they may not be particularly practical for those wishing to age in place. Instead, people might consider installing a wider sink that is not as deep. This could permit more room to maneuver a wheelchair underneath the sink. Contemporary faucets can also simplify the task of cleaning. For example, sensor-based faucets do not need someone to grasp and pull a lever to turn it on.

Cabinets

The placement and the function of cabinets can make them easier or harder for people to use. In many homes, the current trend places upper cabinets higher to extend the usability of the countertop. However, this can render many shelves out of reach, unless residents are willing and able to stand on a step stool. Many designers suggest lowering these cabinets by 3” to make access quicker and less likely to cause pain. Some believe that with a tighter organization of the base cabinets, homeowners may be able to forgo installing as many upper cabinets in the first place.

Senior Using Kitchen Cabinets

There are many features of kitchen cabinets that can aid accessibility now and in the future. Homeowners should consider how they want to use the kitchen, and tailor a design that will suit these expectations. Handles in a “D” shape can be easier to grasp than round pulls. Proper lighting under the cabinetry can decrease the likelihood of stumbling or stubbing a toe. Pullout drawers allow people to reach all the way to the back, to grab or put away food items without having to strain. Pull-down shelving may make those higher shelves reachable. Pullout shelves provide a convenient place to store larger items, such as small appliances, in a cupboard or pantry. This can create more space on the countertop for food preparation.

Flooring

Besides a non-slip surface that can help people avoid falling, flooring for the kitchen should promote ease in maintenance and movement. Experts suggest materials like vinyl or wood because they provide a consistent surface. Carpet is not typically suggested for kitchens, related to the overall maintenance burden and mobility concerns. However, carpets with a low pile might be a reasonable choice for homeowners who prefer its softness and protection in case of falls.

Many people install tile made out of porcelain, ceramic, or natural stone for kitchens because it is hard-wearing. However, it makes a firm surface in the event of a fall, and it can be harder to clean. Hardwood may present a similar problem. Uneven tile work or a wide grout could increase difficulty for people crossing the surface using a wheelchair or walker. If homeowners would prefer not to remove their existing tile or hardwood in favor of something that is more manageable for aging residents, they may be able to make their current flooring more useful. Installing a non-slip texture on tile can make hardwood floors safer. Minimizing the use of rugs and mats can simplify cleaning and prevent tripping.

Appliances

Selecting appliances for the kitchen is a task that homeowners may have to undergo more than once, even after they retire. Choosing equipment that improves mobility while retaining the full function of a standard kitchen can make the difference between a space that is useful, and one that feels inaccessible. People should be able to navigate the space around the range and dishwasher safely, especially while using a walker or wheelchair. Some homeowners prefer refrigerators in the “counter-depth” size because they are designed to transition smoothly instead of jutting out from the countertop.

Senior Using Refrigerator

Safe use of kitchen appliances is paramount. Many accidents and injuries occur due to faults in kitchen design, particularly as they relate to cooking implements. Cords should be kept away from heat or water, in a spot that is easy to reach. Placement of a new range should offer spaces to prepare and store cooking tools that do not require a lot of reaching. This area must not be cramped, lest residents risk knocking things onto a burner and starting a fire. Ventilation for fuel-powered ranges should be appropriately-sized for the equipment and generally easy to turn on and off. Homeowners need to locate a spot to install a fire extinguisher appropriate for kitchen fires that could be accessible by someone in a seated position.

Appliance selection should balance function and reasonable access. Refrigerators with pull-out shelving put less strain on a delicate spine. A microwave installed above the range may take up less space, but it is not quite as practical for people who struggle to reach up high or balance open containers. Similarly, homeowners should think about how they can continue to use a dishwasher or oven. Over time, many people have difficulties bending over due to joint problems or overall stability concerns. Moving these appliances off the ground may make it easier to use them independently, without the regular risk of injury.

Living Room

Furniture

For people who may spend a good amount of time at home, a variety of comfortable places to sit becomes a high priority. Homeowners may decide to put in a selection of seating options and tables for multiple purposes. Aiming for optimal mobility and minimal cleaning obligations is important. Even people who have excellent health may risk injury walking into a crowded room in low lighting. For this reason, low tables can be a significant risk, as are pieces of furniture with legs that stick out.

Selecting furniture that offers a pleasant and supportive spot to visit with friends or watch television will make the space more useful. Chairs and sofas should be relatively firm and sturdy. Homeowners who encounter mobility problems over time will need seating that does not require them to squat in order to sit or stand. People who are on the shorter side may also want to choose seating that is not too deep. Material and design of the seating also matters. Couches or chairs with non-slip features will allow them to stay put if someone puts a lot of weight on one side.

Many homeowners use furniture to increase storage capacity in the living room. This may be a good choice to minimize clutter in the room, so long as residents can use the system and keep it organized. Instead of using cabinets or cubbies on the floor, some people prefer to mount storage units to the wall. Most new televisions will also readily attach to the wall. This can make it easier to see and prevent it from becoming a toppling hazard.

Cord Management

Cord Senior Tripping Hazard

Keeping cords under control reduces the likelihood that homeowners will injure themselves or damage equipment. Cords under repeated stress are prone to fraying or even causing a short. People should position the furniture in the home so that outlets are near tables or seating, but not directly behind a sofa. Long cords can be coiled (not too tightly) and tied with a simple twist tie or zip tie to keep them from stretching out underfoot.

Many people like to use outlet adapters or surge protectors to increase the use of a single outlet. They should confirm that they can firmly grip the adapter to avoid damaging the plugs or the outlet while adjusting it. Homeowners who want to install a TV, entertainment, or sound system to the wall should locate it near outlets. They may wish to run wiring to a sound system across the ceiling or under flooring so that the cables stay out of the way.

Layout

A design that maximizes use will make homeowners happier with the space overall. As a general rule, people should plan to keep a 60” square or round space open in the living room for the best maneuverability. In a large living room, this may not be difficult to achieve. People with a smaller living space may need to limit the amount of furniture they select to make sure they can get around easily in any circumstance. When deciding what to keep, it is usually better to focus on meeting the needs of the people spending the most time in the room.

Experts recommend limiting the number of tables and stools, especially coffee tables and ottomans that sit in the middle of the room. In the early months or years, people may want to try out a few different designs and see which one works best for them. Being willing to adjust the layout over time can make the space feel fresh and maintain its practicality.

Laundry Room

Appliances

Laundry Room for Seniors

Laundry is not always the first thing that comes to people’s minds when thinking about home accessibility or age-in-place improvements. Homeowners often plan to replace their washer and dryer once every 10-15 years, and should think about what they will need toward the end of their equipment’s lifespan. This may call for extra attention to the laundry room layout. Buying bigger or smaller appliances, or styles in a different layout, may turn an ideal design into one that no longer works. These days, laundry appliances come in a wide variety of sizes and styles. Appliances with a larger capacity can make laundry day faster and more efficient, but also make it harder to load and empty.

People concerned with future accessibility might choose options with buttons and dials on the front of the device, instead of at the back. This will prevent overextending to turn it on and off. Clearly-defined features with large print will be easier to read and set correctly. Some products feature audible as well as visual instructions, for people who struggle to read the screen. Front-load washers and dryers may simplify the transition of wet laundry, minimizing straining and repetitive movement on delicate joints.

Bending over to grab clothing out of a washer or dryer could be hard on the back, but there are a few ways people can avoid this issue. For example, some appliances come with a pedestal design that puts the drum 12”-15” higher than the floor. This can cut down the strain of reaching for socks or other small items at the back. Open pedestals can also provide an empty space underneath, making it easier to keep the laundry floor clean.

Flooring

Like the kitchen or bathroom, the laundry room is prone to moisture. As such, flooring like hardwood or tile could be more difficult to maintain and present a slip hazard. Homeowners should look for flooring that is smooth and less likely to become slippery when it gets wet or damp. Vinyl or rubber may be good options for this space.

People who need to use laundry carts to move clothing from the laundry room to other parts of the house should aim to create a relatively seamless transition. A transition from thick flooring or another style could create a literal hurdle that is difficult for people using mobility devices to clear. For thin flooring like vinyl, homeowners may want to add an underlayment to raise up the height of the floor slightly. This minimizes the depth of the transition and decreases the risk of tripping.

Counters/Sinks

Adding a counter to the laundry room may be the perfect way to cut down on the time and hassle of laundry day. For homeowners who are thinking about installing or replacing their counter and sink, a few changes to the standard laundry room design might make all the difference. Just like in the kitchen, it may be better for people to set the height of the counter a little lower, from the typical 36” to 28”-34”. A sink can make rinsing, hand-washing, and stain treatment quicker. Homeowners may want to choose a sink that is not quite as deep. A faucet that rises high above the counter will stop people from having to bend over as far to rinse or scrub.

Storage above or under the counter can also be made more accessible. Many homeowners like to use high cabinets to keep cleaning solutions out of reach of children or pets. They may want to move these cabinets down for easy access, or invest in pull-down shelves. Instead of base cupboards, people might opt for shelving or an open space. This can provide extra clearance under the counter for mobility.

Stairways

Stair Safety Tips

Senior Safety on Stairs

Before homeowners need to consider adding mobility devices to reduce their use of a staircase, there is a lot they can do to increase safe use of the stairs. Staircases are obviously a common source of falls, but people can make some additions to lower their risk. These include:

  • Installing or replacing handrails or banisters to styles/materials that will support more weight
  • Replacing uneven, steep, or shallow stairs in older homes that do not meet current standards
  • Installing treads on slippery stairs to minimize the chance of falling
  • Putting in proper lighting on a sensor
  • Confirming that carpeting is secured tightly to the stair
  • Minimizing the use of rugs at the top and bottom of the staircase
  • Placing a repositionable or permanent gate at the top of the stairs to provide extra support

Some of these additions are simple to make and relatively inexpensive. Homeowners may also want to think about stair use in some of their home improvement decisions. For example, installing a system that allows people to answer the door and speak to visitors remotely may stop them from having to rush up or down the stairs when the doorbell rings. Selecting flooring with reduced glare will increase visibility while on the staircase. Keeping a pair of close-fitting shoes or slippers with a non-slip sole readily available may be one of the easiest safety upgrades. When buying a condo, consider the options for traveling upstairs. Even with multiple properly functioning elevators, living on the first floor may still be ideal if the stairwell situation is not ideal.

When to Consider Moving Away From Stairs

For some people, trying to adjust an existing home to fit mobility concerns becomes a more difficult task than making the choice to move. As a general rule, experts believe that homeowners will have an easier time aging in place if they can get most or all of their living needs on a single floor. Many homes can accommodate this, transitioning the basement or second floor into a space that can be used primarily by guests or younger family members.

When this is not a realistic option, homeowners should serious consider the expense and effort of installing stair lifts or elevators compared to the cost of selling the property as-is and moving to/buying a home with only one floor.

Stair Lifts

Stair lifts can make an otherwise unaccessible story accessible to residents of many homes. Stair lifts are designed to allow a person to easily move from one floor to another without having to climb or descend a staircase. Before making this choice, homeowners should make sure that they can keep other necessary mobility devices on each floor.

Stair Lift for Aging in Place

Homeowners who expect to need help navigating the stairs for a long time may decide to invest in a permanent stair lift. For those who might only need them for a limited amount of time, or would like to test out how they would like having a stair lift at home may want to rent one. The price for the stair lift depends on the style of staircase and the features available in the lift. People who need a lift that will curve may pay more than those with a straight, indoor staircase.

Elevators

Homeowners who have the space available might think about putting in a home elevator. This can be a much larger investment than a stair lift, and may make more sense as part of a bigger remodeling project. In order to install an elevator, people typically need to have about 25 square feet available on each floor. Although some models do not need a shaft, homeowners should still be able to dedicate the same amount of space on each floor.

There are a few types of home elevators that people can consider, and the choice affects cost, space needed, and use. Pneumatic elevators need the least room, but have limits on size and maximum weight. Traction elevators often cost less, but tend to be louder while in use. Hydraulic styles move more quickly, but they require a machine room to run. Homeowners should look at each option carefully before making a decision. When buying a home, you may be able to search for homes that already contain some sort of lift or elevator. Some may think that only luxury homes for sale may have such a feature, but they might be surprised with the number of homes on the market that cater to this need.

Garage

Non-Slip Floors

Garages can be a problematic part of the home for falls. This is a part of the home that brings in arguably the most tripping hazards, including water, ice, dirt, and mud. Choosing flooring is more limited here than in other rooms in the home. Garage flooring must be moisture-resistant, non-slip, and able to support the weight of a car. Many homeowners rely on a basic concrete pad for their garage flooring, but this may not be an ideal or safe choice. Concrete can absorb oils and grease from the car and other garage equipment, creating a slippery spot that is difficult to eliminate.

Homeowners looking to increase their garage safety have essentially two options: epoxy coating and a few types of garage tiles. Epoxy floor coating comes in a variety of colors and styles, and is designed to be hard-wearing and slip-resistant. A good installation can simplify the work of wiping up spills. Garage tiles are often made out of plastic and can be porous or relatively seamless. The tiles lock together and provide a supportive surface with a tread. The design of the tiles will affect how easy they are to clean and maintain.

General Accessibility

Garage Safety and Accessibility

When homeowners are thinking about how they can adapt their garages for needs they may not have for another 10-20 years, they may want to put in some advance planning. They should be able to address the following:

  • How many cars need to fit into the garage
  • Whether the garage will accommodate an additional 60” between vehicles and the wall
  • If the garage has stairs to transition from the house
  • Whether a ramp is a realistic alternative
  • How much lighting is needed, and how best to achieve it
  • Storage needs to keep the floor clear
  • Access to the garage from every entrance

People may need to adjust their expectations for use of the garage in order to ensure that they have unimpeded access in and out of vehicles as well as entering and exiting the garage.

In some cases, homeowners may wish to extend the height, width, or depth of the garage to provide plenty of room. Each door needs to be at least 36” wide with a lever handle for easy opening. Installing or updating a motorized garage door can improve access. Certain systems are designed to operate by smartphone or audible command. Multiple sources of lighting decrease the likelihood that people will enter the garage and find themselves plunged into darkness. Light sensors inside the garage and on the driveway can provide necessary illumination as well as deterring intruders.

Storage Safety

Garage storage can be as custom and adjustable as people need it to be. Many systems are designed to use as much of the wall space and ceiling area as possible. However, homeowners should be realistic about their storage goals and how well they will be able to manage the system over time. For example, overhead storage can provide a lot of extra space for bulky and lightweight items like holiday decorations or sports gear. People should select models with features that allow them to pull it down or use a motorized system to lower it for placement, to make it more useful to them over time.

Wall storage could be an excellent way to maximize space and limit clutter on the garage floor. It must be properly installed and used correctly, to avoid having items fall off or collapse under too much weight. Bins made out of clear plastic will be easier to identify and better at keeping out rodents and other pests. Homeowners who are unsure how they will use the storage might opt for a system that runs shelves, racks and hooks on wall-mounted runners. This way, they can change out their storage based on the season, or adapt it to meet their needs as they age.

Home Exterior

Pathways

Senior-Safe Garden Pathway

Ensuring that everyone can safely get around a home’s exterior requires attention to the pathways. Driveways and sidewalks with significant cracks or uneven portions could turn into a tripping hazard. Steep driveways can be more difficult to navigate using assistive devices like a wheelchair. Changing the grade may solve this issue. However, it may call for adjustments to the rest of the property to preserve accessibility to the home.

Landscaping has the potential to create safety hazards, as well. Homeowners may want to install lighting on the exterior of the home or garage, as well as outdoor lighting along common pathways. People should tailor their landscaping to minimize intrusion of narrow pathways or obstacles on a paved space. This may require the removal of bushes or trees that grow into this area. People should make sure that they can maintain landscaping around the driveway and walkways, or plan to hire someone to take care of it for them.

Outdoor Activity Spaces

Enjoying time outdoors is a pastime that people of all ages can and should be able to do. Although many homeowners can take advantage of activity well into their retirement years, they may want to consider improvements that limit how much movement they have to make in their yards. For example, people who like to garden might consider the different tasks and find ways to automate or minimize the jobs that they do not enjoy or that are difficult to do.

Stability and safety is just as important outside as inside. Homeowners should ensure that unpaved areas provide a fairly level walking surface, without a significant incline or unexpected holes. Paved spaces, like a patio, should offer as flat a surface as possible. Paving stones that are uneven or jagged could become a tripping hazard. Homeowners should consider their future needs when installing a patio or deck. Lakefront real estate may be optimized by minimizing the risk of falling into water with guard rails. Golf course homes may present a similar risk if they are near the water. Providing a comfortable outdoor space with a step-less transition from the home could be the ideal option. Like the living room or bedroom, this outdoor living area should be large enough to allow for free movement. Sturdy outdoor furniture that is appropriate in size will increase use and enjoyment of the yard.

Entryways

Decreasing barriers to entry and exit is key to ensuring that an entryway is both safe and practical for homeowners. When people think about a standard front or back porch, they may imagine a few steps leading to a small stoop and a door. Unfortunately, such a design might not be very accessible to people with limited mobility. Although homeowners may spend most of their time indoors, making it easier to go out will increase the likelihood that people will stay active.

Porches that are small may not offer adequate room for the installation of a ramp. In some cases, installing a short outdoor stair lift may help overcome this obstacle. People who have more space could consider putting in a permanent ramp at an incline they can manage on their own. Exterior doors should be 36” wide and easy for someone to open and close while relying on a mobility device. An awning or other cover for the porch may help keep it drier during the wet seasons, and prevent the sun from making the doorknob too hot to handle. Adequate lighting that is operable from the outside will allow residents to see where they are going when they return home.

General Improvements

Space Considerations

At times, finding the right amount of space may mean that a simple retrofit is not realistic. Rooms that tend to be on the smaller side, such as a bathroom or laundry room, may not be large enough to provide necessary accessibility. In these cases, it could be helpful to consider complicated renovations sooner rather than later. That way, homeowners can be sure that they will have the space they need to get around and stay content in their homes, even if their mobility decreases.

Non-Slip Rugs

Many people like to use rugs as a way to muffle noises or make a space feel cozier. However, adding rugs throughout the home can make it harder for people to safely navigate the space. Rugs can catch on a cane or walker, or get trapped under a wheelchair. Fortunately, there are a variety of options for homeowners to consider to protect themselves. Instead of using throw rugs, they might be prefer a tightly-woven or synthetic mat with a graduated edge to allow them to move across it with ease. Products that are not made specifically with mobility in mind often can be secured to the flooring after purchase, to keep them from sliding around too much.

Doorways & Hallways

When homeowners first start to plan for their retirement years in their own homes, they may quickly realize a problem. Many homes are not built to be accessible to people who use a walker, much less a wheelchair. A lot of houses, especially older ones, may have corridors and doorways that will not permit such movement. Most modern exterior doors should meet the 36” minimum from one side of the jamb to the other. Interior doorways may need to be expanded in order to meet this minimum threshold.

People should also think about how the doors open and what this means for their mobility. Doors that lead into a room should be able to open fully, without running into furniture or an oddly-shaped wall. Doors that open out of the room should also open wide, so that a person can have the full doorway to enter the room. Trying to open or close a door while relying on a cane or walker can be difficult or even impossible for some residents. Homeowners may want to install automatic door operators that they can activate with a switch or by pushing a button. Hallways need to be wide enough for people to pass through with a wheelchair, about 48”. If they expect to turn around in the space, they may need 60” or more.

Lighting

There are essentially four things that homeowners need to consider for proper lighting in their homes. Lighting should be:

  • Bright enough to make things easier to see
  • Positioned properly to avoid creating a glare off reflective surfaces
  • Easy to reach from almost anywhere in the room
  • Installed in multiple places, for adjustable levels of lighting

Every room should feature an overhead lighting source with a fairly high output. Some people like to connect their light fixtures to smart home technology. That way, they can operate it by using a switch, by voice, or using their smartphones. Homeowners without access to these tools may simply choose to put in multiple kinds of lights. Battery-operated models can increase the room’s illumination at the push of a button.

Certain age-related visual conditions, like cataracts, can make lighting trickier. The lower the light, the harder it is to see obstacles or use tools appropriately. Bright light shining on reflective surfaces like tables, countertops, or flooring can turn lighting into a hazard. People may want to install a combination of lights, some of which point upward instead of downward. This improves the level of ambient lighting without the glare.

As a general rule, homeowners cannot have too many lighting options in a single room. People can look at a combination of choices that they can layer for additional lighting, or bring down to build a sense of calm in the evenings. Adjustable spotlights can provide the perfect illumination for reading in a chair or at the bedside. People should confirm that they can adjust the position safely, as some types of light bulbs can become hot with prolonged use. Homeowners can improve safety if they take care to minimize light transitions. For example, a brightly lit hallway that leads to the outdoors will make sunlight feel less overwhelming.

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