Rebecka Snell, 65, says she knew that if she and her husband, Vic Labson, were to continue living in their 1960s ranch home in Lakewood, improvements would be needed to create a safer and more enjoyable space.
Moving the washer and dryer from the walkout basement to the main level was high on her wish list.
“It was not just going up and down stairs; it was carrying laundry baskets up and down the stairs,” Snell said.
She consulted Barbara Barton, a master kitchen and bath designer and certified Living In Place professional in Littleton, who laid out a plan to provide a suitable and comfortable space.
To accommodate Snell, “we included the stackable washer and dryer hidden behind cabinet doors on the main level,” Barton said. “Then, we knew we needed to add better railings on the stairs going down to the basement. And for the family room, there was just one rail, and we added a second.”
For many older adults, there’s no place like home. The problem is that most U.S. housing isn’t designed to accommodate physical and cognitive challenges that come with aging.
Steep stairways, narrow hallways and other structural barriers can make an older home feel like an indoor obstacle course. A few universal design modifications can go a long way to help residents of all ages live safely and comfortably in their homes.
Here are some home improvement ideas that might allow you to remain in your home rather than moving elsewhere as you get older:
• Invest in smart-home products. Technology is a game-changer for remaining independent and staying connected, says Erik Listou, co-founder of the Denver-based Living In Place Institute, which trains housing and medical professionals on home accessibility and safety. Sensors can keep a virtual eye on you and your home to improve comfort, security and energy efficiency. As you move around your home, the devices can report back to a caretaker or a loved one about your daily routine.
Voice-controlled personal assistant devices let you turn on or off items such as lights, a TV or a thermostat. Moreover, with a push of a button, you can control connected-home systems around the house, including sprinklers, windows and locks.
• Fall-proof your home. The National Institute on Aging reports that 6 in 10 falls happen at home. A few modifications can increase your safety and comfort.
For starters, install handrails on both sides of a stairway to prevent nasty tumbles, being sure they extend beyond the top and bottom of stairs.
Modifying the front entryway so the surface from the exterior to the interior is level will reduce the risk of falling and make the transition from the outside to the inside easier.
“If the house has front steps, add a handrail on each side,” Listou said, noting that, ideally, you would reconfigure the entryway to have a sloping walkway rather than steps.
A door overhang at the main entrance can shield you from the elements and reduce the risk of slipping during inclement weather.
Eliminate slipping and tripping hazards indoors by removing floor mats and throw rugs. Choose floor coverings that are slip-resistant, durable for wheelchair or walker use and able to smoothly make the transition to adjacent rooms. If the budget allows, install a stair lift or elevator.
• Widen doorways. Narrow doorways are problematic for people of all ages, but especially for people with limited mobility. Make your doorways at least 36 inches wide instead of the standard 30 inches. Listou said if a resident or visitor is carrying groceries or using a walker or wheelchair, that’s the perfect size to navigate through a home easily. To make doors easy and safe to use, replace doorknobs with lever-type handles with end returns. These help prevent clothes from snagging on the knob or handle and keep hands from sliding off the end of a regular door lever handle.
• Make your bathroom accessible. Consider replacing your tub with a walk-in shower instead of one with a step-over threshold. Install sturdy grab bars at the entrance to the shower, inside the shower and by the toilet to provide stability and support. A taller toilet will aid in sitting and rising. Bidets or bidet toilet seat conversions can significantly improve hygiene.
Snell’s master bathroom had a jetted tub that occupied about a third of the room. “I didn’t want a tub in the bathroom, because I never used it,” she said. “I wanted to use the space for things that matter to me. If I could get in the tub, I couldn’t get out.”
The makeover was extensive, widening the doorway, adding luxury vinyl tile, which is softer on feet, a walk-in tub and a curb-less shower with two grab bars. The shower wall was prepped with bracing for a future fold-down seat, and the toilet paper holder integrates a grab bar.
Even a cramped powder room can be made more accessible. The door can be modified to a sliding door, and a pedestal sink will take up less floor space than a bulky vanity. Another option is to carve space out of an adjacent closet to expand the bathroom.
• Modify the kitchen. Rollout shelves and a microwave at counter height can help you maintain independence in the kitchen. Ideally, you would have open space beneath the sink to provide wheelchair accessibility. An electric cooktop with controls on the front will eliminate the need to reach across hot burners. To avoid having to bend over, add seated work spaces for food preparation.
Snell’s revamped kitchen has an induction cooktop, which offers the safety of no open flame. The control panel is operated by the touch of a finger. Pullout drawers provide easy access, and the dishwasher is raised 6 inches from the floor for easy access and less bending. Two ovens separate from the cooktop are raised to prevent leaning over. A center island is convenient and accessible for meal preparation.
“What’s surprising is that the remodeling was seamless,” Snell said. “Everything seems so natural now. When I leave the house, and I don’t have these features elsewhere, I’m really grateful for what I have. I feel comfortable that I’m less likely to injure myself.”
• Aging in the right place. Some house designs might not be practical or cost-effective for aging in place. Denver resident Larry Armstrong’s two-story, turn-of-the century Victorian was not a good candidate for modification.
“It had high ceilings and winding staircases,” said Armstrong, 71, a certified Living In Place professional who works with remodelers and designers. “It would have been very difficult to adapt to live in placed. I had even looked at the possibility of putting an elevator in, but it would have damaged the integrity of the core of the home. You walk in and, all of sudden, there’s an elevator sticking out in the middle of the house.”
Instead of renovating, Armstrong and his wife moved to a three-bedroom, ranch-style bungalow. The home has a zero-step entry but needed a few more modifications, especially in the master and guest bathrooms. They just have a few more tweaks to make.
“Living comfortably and living in place is not really an age issue,” Armstrong said. “It’s for the young mother with her arm full of groceries and pushing a stroller, the guy who blew out his knee while skiing and coming back from rehabbing. It’s for every one of us. We want to live comfortably wherever it is we are.”