How many homes do you know that are wheelchair-accessible with a level entryway and wide doorways? Or how many residential bathrooms have you seen with an accessible toilet and a roll-in shower?
Probably just a handful.
This is because universal design – also called barrier-free design – is typically limited to public buildings, which must be built to government code.
However, as Baby Boomers age, many need such universal design amenities. Yet, barrier-free housing is often difficult to find.
In fact, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are only approximately six barrier-free homes for every 15 households with a physical disability, leaving more than 50% of the disabled or elderly to fend for themselves when it comes to accessible housing,
True to their reputation, Baby Boomers are doing an exceptional job with making do with what they have; instead of relocating entirely, many are “aging in place” by making simple and inexpensive changes to their homes to make them more adaptable to their changing needs.
How to make your home more senior-friendly
You can make your home more friendly to all inhabitants and visitors, regardless of age or ability, in numerous ways. The suggestions below range from DIY to professional installation and everything in between.
It’s easier to fall when entering or exiting a home if one is juggling keys, packages, pets and the mail. Simply placing a table or bench near the door is an easy way to minimize fall risk.
Entryways should also be as wide as possible and well-lit. Remove area rugs and clearly delineate any steps or thresholds. Wheelchair threshold ramps are recommended if there’s a house member using a wheelchair or scooter. These can be found in most large hardware stores or on Amazon.
In addition, be sure to have at least one step-free entrance into the home, and ensure the outdoor face of all entryways is covered to protect the ground surfaces from the weather.
Doorways must be more than 36 inches wide to be ADA-compliant. However, keep in mind most older doors in homes are less than this—often only 32 inches when fully opened (as the hinges take up space). You can install “swing clear” hinges, which can provide up to 1 ½ inches of additional clearance without replacing the door and door frame. If you’d rather just widen the doorway altogether, DIY step-by-step instructions for widening a doorway can be found here.
This is an often overlooked area. Turning a doorknob can be difficult and even painful for someone with arthritis or other conditions. Replace the doorknob with lever-style hardware.
Light switches and thermostats
Light switches, thermostats and controls should be less than 48 inches from the floor so anyone in a wheelchair can reach them. Illuminated rocker switches are better than the standard toggle light switches because they’re easier to locate in a dim or dark room.
Trips are just as harmful as slips, as both can cause a fall. While it’s best to just completely remove area rugs, if your loved one absolutely insists on keeping rugs in the home, be sure to place non-skid mats under each one.
Kitchens offer ample opportunities for aging-in-place changes:
- Pull-out cabinets are more accessible to anyone who is vision-impaired or has difficulties with arm mobility.
- Round the edges of corners and edges to prevent bumps and bruises. Moldable putty is a great option for this: Simply place the putty around sharp edges of countertops and furniture.
- Shallow sinks are easier to access than deep sinks.
- Microwaves should be at counter height for accessibility.
- Lazy susans are fairly easy to install and are an excellent way to make corner cabinet space accessible.
- Wrap rubber bands around your cups and glassware to make gripping them easier for arthritic hands.
- Clip recipes to a pants hanger, and then attach the pants hanger to a higher cabinet to bring a difficult-to-see recipe to eye level.
- Install a grab bar near the kitchen table to make sitting in a kitchen chair (and also standing up) easier. These are a must in the bathroom and can also be installed near easy chairs and couches. Most hardware stores sell free-standing grab bars for a more portable solution.
Handrails and stairs
Handrails are a must (and required by most building codes and permits). Most homes only have one handrail, but two handrails are safer. Handrails should be a certain distance from both the floor and the wall, and it’s also smart to mark the stairs to provide a clear delineation between the two. You can do this with yellow tape or paint. Adding contrast to other barrier areas, such as curbs, ramps or doorways, also enhances safety.
Ensure the entire home is well-lit, especially doorways, stairs, entryways and hallways. Because less light reaches the retina of the eye of an older adult, the recommended light levels in living environments used by older adults should be increased by at least 50% compared to that of a normal environment. The ability for the vision system to adapt to dim conditions decreases with age, so it’s also important to keep the level of illumination consistent throughout the home. If you’re extra handy, consider automatic lights, which turn on during the evening time or with movement. These are great for rooms with light switches located far from the door.
For work areas (kitchens, workshops, sewing areas, etc.), the light illuminating the task should be at least 1000 lx (100 fc) in order to see fine details or low-contrast objects. This level of illumination makes many tasks safer (and easier), such as reading prescriptions and sewing.
Choose fluorescent over incandescent; fluorescent lamps will help older adults to see colors better.
Make sure the bedroom is on the main level. If this isn’t possible, consider adding an additional bedroom to the main floor, installing a chair lift, or remodeling to make an existing room on the main floor a bedroom. (Any one of these options would be less expensive and resource-intensive than moving to a new home).
Because getting in and out of bed is a leading cause of falls for older adults, add safety rails to bedsides to prevent falls. Also, include a step device that makes getting in and out of bed easier.
Keep an extension grabber handy in the closet for accessing items from higher shelves. Declutter closets as much as possible, install bright lighting and avoid storing heavy items on top shelves.
Washers and dryers
Washers and dryers are much more accessible if they are front-loading. Either raise the washer and dryers or place a chair in front of them for easier access for anyone with low back issues. The same goes for dishwashers: Raisers can be expensive, but some DIY options are available. Also, stores like Home Depot sell ADA-compliant appliances.
Grab bars near the toilet are a must. Consider installing a shower seat, and also consider refurbishing a shower to be walk-in instead of step-in. Replace low toilet seats with higher ones. Adjustable shower heads are more accessible, and also be sure to install grab bars inside and outside the shower.
The bathroom floor is a huge hazard, so consider replacing tile with rubber flooring or non-slip vinyl flooring (no-slip floor paint is also available). A low-cost option is to use low-pile, slip-resistant mats with rubber backing, but fasten them to the floor with rug tape to ensure stability.
Aging in place is not only more economical, but it’s also better for your loved one. Try the suggested changes to keep your loved one in-home for longer.