Low-cost senior design features make it easier to age in place

Most Americans, according to research, want to age gracefully in their own homes. For many, though, illness, injury or simply the effects of aging make that difficult, if not impossible.

Stairs become harder to climb, lights seem dimmer and bathing becomes difficult as well as dangerous. Yet, architects routinely find that older clients don't care to admit to their vulnerability. Their general attitude seems to be, "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it, and then there's always assisted living."

But there are discreet aging-in-place features that are relatively low-cost and easy to incorporate into new home designs, as well as remodels. Here are 12 of those accommodations that can be inexpensively (and discreetly) incorporated.

1. Make the home easy to enter. Just one step up, and it's impossible for anyone with mobility issues to enter. The front door should be accessible from a level surface outside, and the garage entry from a ramp.

2. Select doors that are at least 34 inches wide. This will provide 32 inches of clearance when the door is open, so a wheelchair can fit through.

3. Hallways are more accommodating at 42 inches wide than 36 inches or less. It's important, too, that there is space to turn a wheelchair around so the person doesn't get stuck in a room. A 5-foot circle is the basic rule.

4. Transitions in levels, whether flooring, area rugs or door thresholds, must have a height difference of no more than half an inch. Flooring materials should be slip-resistant when wet.

When you're remodeling, consider what you might need in your home later in life, when you may be considering senior living options, including aging in place. In the bathroom, for instance, consider a zero-entry shower. stock photo

5. Plan for a zero-clearance shower instead of a tub. Having a shower head that is on a hose, instead of stationary in the wall, is especially helpful if the person is bathing on a shower chair.

6. Increased lighting levels inside and out, and lighting in transitional spaces, are important. Consider adding lighting to the undersides of each stair step and under cabinets in bathrooms and kitchens. Seniors can't see blues, greens and yellows as well, so it's better to select colors that are easily distinguishable. Better yet, use alternating colors for steps and transitions.

7. Consider assistive technologies designed specifically for folks whose hearing and vision are impaired. Special smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are available that produce tactile and visual alerts in case of an emergency. There are also alert devices that use sound, light and vibration to help with doorbells, alarm clocks and phones.

8. Reaching high or low can be difficult. It's best to place ovens, microwaves and appliances between knee height and mid-chest height. This includes dishwashers, which can be raised above the floor. Washers and dryers are easier to access if they are front-loading and on pedestals.

9. It's nice to have a single-floor living arrangement, but often that won't be the case. In multiple floor homes, "stacking" walk-in closets on each floor will make it easier to convert them to elevator use later. Also, it's a lot easier to install a chair lift on a straight-run stair, with a good landing space top and bottom than a switchback stair with little landing space.

Doors that open with lever doorknobs are easier to open for people living with arthritis. Consider the same style for faucet handles also. stock photo

10. Twisting and grasping can be hard for folks with arthritis. Lever-style door and faucet handles are better than knobs. Motion-sensor faucets are great, too.

11. Consider bottom cabinetry that can later be easily removed to accommodate a wheelchair.

12. Always reinforce walls where there might be future grab bars near the toilet and shower.

There's no magic in any of these design features. Aging in place becomes a reality and not just a dream with a little forethought and creativity.

• Diana Melichar is a Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist (CAPS) in Lake Forest. Visit her online at

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