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Aging in place

How to stay in our homes as long as possible
by Steve McKee on January 27, 2010

There are ways we can make our homes ready for us to “age in place” and still look like a gorgeous house. “Aging in place” is the name given to people remaining comfortably in their homes even as their bodies weaken with age. Many of these accommodating aspects can be built-in and seem so “normal” as to be invisible.

It can start with a simple idea, like laying out a two story house so that there is both an upstairs and a downstairs Master Bedroom. The downstairs version is usually the “minor” master, but should at least meet the standards of a comfortable Guest Room that is nice enough to serve as your bedroom when the year arrives that the stairs become too much of a burden.

Easy-to-include ideas to achieve accessibility:

  • Wider hallways. A hall really ought to be 42” if your design allows. And wider yet at corners.
  • Wider doors. Wheelchairs and walkers need a minimum of a 32” wide door and preferably a 36” door. Any wider than that and the doors start to look ungainly. Front doors are the exception, and can be as wide as 42” and still seem okay. Use discretion by allocating the 36” doors for often-used routes of travel (bedrooms, the master bathroom, for instance.) Slightly smaller doors are okay for less common paths (linen closets, upstairs rooms that will be largely unvisited by people with walkers or chairs.)
  • Lever handles for doors (these are easy to change out later.)
  • A “no step” entry at the front door and at the garage entry door. At the very least make a provision for a future ramp that is well thought out and won’t overwhelm the look of your house and seem like an afterthought. (The ramp can often be done off to the side, and often configured so that it blends in and doesn’t even seem like a ramp.)
  • A lower threshold to a shower entry. It’s possible to avoid a curb in your shower altogether if you design your tiled shower floor to be a half inch below the tiled floor of the bathroom. (You create this during construction by reinforcing the floor framing below and then undercutting the framing two inches to give enough space for your tile installer to create a slight slope to the drain. Consult your design professional for details on this one!)
  • Handrail-backing placed in showers and around toilets to allow for easy installation of future grab-bars if desired. Simply have carpenters add extra wood blocks in wall while the wall is being framed. This is quite easy (and therefore inexpensive) and very worthwhile.
  • Showers can have a tile bench on one side (I recommend 20” height and at least 16” deep) with a detachable showerhead (a must, and not expensive. These can be retrofitted into place later simply by replacing your shower head with a detachable one.) Lever handles on the shower control are also a good move.
  • Cork flooring is a softer choice than either hardwood or tile. Cork looks nicer than you’d expect. It has variations and veins and visual interest in the manner of an interesting stone. It would be a fine choice for its looks alone. It’s not exactly spongy (I was surprised how firm it was) but is softer than hardwood or tile and therefore easier on old bones to walk on.
  • Door thresholds that are really pretty darn flat. Half inch height at the most and a quarter inch is even better. (Try pushing someone around town in a wheelchair for awhile and you too will be an expert on door threshold heights.)

One forward thinking client asked to have two large storage closets aligned one above the other off the first and second floor hallways so that she could create an elevator shaft very easily in the future if circumstances required it. A home elevator costs about $25K (a sizable chunk) but just might beat having to move out of your favorite house and spending money to buy something else.

These adaptations are best done in the spirit of “universal design,” the name given to designs that accommodate everybody, not just the disabled. I’ve found that the one room where it’s trickiest to be truly universal and “blend in” the accommodations is the Kitchen, where things like lower counter heights and open “knee spaces” under counters are not usually in high demand unless there is a wheelchair in the mix. Still, you can design in the possibility of a nearby table right in the kitchen to achieve a “no-nonsense” working kitchen like you see in farmhouses.

There are other easily adapted features to help a kitchen be more user-friendly for an aging body:

  • Pull out work surfaces (“bread boards”) at a height of about 31”. These are quite useful for those cooking from a chair, especially if the rest of the kitchen has 36” height counters.
  • An oven with a side-swing door with the bottom positioned about 14” above the floor. The side-swing eliminates the requirement to lean and grapple hot heavy things across the down-swing door. (Try Fagor.com to find an economical oven with a side-swing door.)
  • A faucet that turns on and off merely by touching the metal anywhere on the faucet. Delta manufactures this. This one is easy to add later to any kitchen.
  • A dishwasher placed higher than usual to lessen the requirement to lean over so far.

The nifty thing about custom building and remodeling is that we get to choose to make our home in any way we want. Of the dozen or so wheelchair users I’ve had as clients, there have been those happy to have even modest improvements to their living situations, and there was one who had a whole house built with wide open spaces and very wide doorways so he could zip around at top speed with ease. That’s why we love custom design. You get to decide how to have things.

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