It makes sense when you think about it — getting older, with all of its complications and physical changes, is already hard enough without throwing in the added stress of moving to a new home. According to a survey published in the Harvard report, 73 percent of Americans age 45 and older would like to stay in their current homes as they age, for as long as possible. With the percentage of Americans 65 and over growing fast (it’s expected to reach about 22% by 2040), and many Baby Boomers eschewing retirement homes, the concept of aging in place is a growing trend in our communities. If you plan to remain in your home long-term, or someone you love is set on aging in place; you may need to make some renovations, or modifications, for safety and comfort. Here are some tips for making your home retirement friendly.
Identify the Challenges
Take a tour of your own home, identify aspects that may pose challenges with aging, and consider what can be changed. As you walk through each room, here are some overall points to keep in mind:
- Lighting and visibility needs. Since eyesight diminishes as we age, consider upgrading the lighting in your stairways, entryways and hallways — for added visibility and safety.
- Wheelchair accessibility. What can be altered to make your home wheelchair accessible, if the need arises? One way to accommodate wheelchairs is to widen doorways to at least 32 inches. Walk around the outside of your house, and note the best spots to install ramps, for ease of access.
- Dexterity issues. Arthritis, and other conditions associated with aging, can make it difficult to turn standard doorknobs, faucets and cabinet handles. Consider installing lever-style handles to make things easier.
- Falling hazards. Did you know that every year, 2.5 million senior Americans (age 65 and over) have to go to the emergency room, after a serious fall? Loose rugs, extension cords, and small or unstable pieces of furniture all can contribute to the risk of falls. Securing and removing these items can go a long way towards preventing accidental injuries.
Now let’s look at some specific renovations you can make to your home to make it more retirement friendly.
Although most people think of adding grab bars to the shower, grab bars are extremely versatile, and can make many areas of the home safer. Consider adding bars wherever extra support is needed — near toilets, in the laundry room, and even in the bedroom or kitchen.
Step-in showers (or step-in tubs) are safer than tub showers for seniors, and offer more accessibility for those with limited movement, walking aids, or wheelchairs. For seniors with reduced movement capabilities, make things even more comfortable by adding a seat inside the shower, a hand-held showerhead for flexibility, and faucet controls at hand level. You may also consider replacing separate hot and cold faucets with a single-handed faucet control, or pressure-balanced control, to reduce the chance of scalding.
As people age, they often have trouble with the motions of sitting down, and getting back up. Raising the height of a standard toilet by just two inches can make it safer, and more comfortable for a senior. At 17 inches tall, Comfort Height toilets are available at most home improvement and supply stores.
The standard counter height (36 inches) can make it difficult for aging individuals to work in the kitchen. Consider replacing standard counters with table height counters (30 inches), or breakfast bar height counters (42 inches) that offer knee-space for sitting. You don’t necessarily need to stick with one counter height for all surfaces in the kitchen. A range of counter heights allows seniors to prep and cook food while seated, or while standing; and minimizes painful bending. When you install new countertops, add contrasting edge banding, so those with failing eyesight can see the surface edges more clearly — this will also help to avoid bumps and scrapes.
Accessible Outlets and Switches
Bending down, or invoking a lot of back movement, often becomes painful for seniors; plus, every time you bend over, you risk losing your balance and falling. One good way to reduce the need for bending down is to raise your home’s electrical outlets, and lower switches and controls, so they are more accessible to someone in a wheelchair. Thermostats and light switches should be no higher than 48 inches above the floor. Outlets should be 18 to 24 inches off the floor.
Try to eliminate fluctuations in floor height in your home as much as possible — remove raised thresholds in doorways, wherever possible. Avoid slippery area rugs and deep-pile carpeting, which can cause a fall; instead, install safer low-pile carpeting. If you’re replacing flooring in your home, consider hardwood flooring, which can make things easier for seniors using wheelchairs or walkers.
Universal Design Benefits Everyone
Most tips for helping seniors age in their homes are part of a concept called “universal design.” Ron Mace — who founded the Center for Universal Design — coined the term about three decades ago, to describe features of an accessible home that benefit all ages. In other words, homes with universal design can accommodate toddlers, strollers, walkers, and people of all heights and abilities.
As they have so frequently throughout their lifetimes, the Baby Boom generation is pushing change — this time, in the way we organize our homes. And, before you stress over the loss of your chic décor; keep in mind that a retirement friendly home can still look warm, inviting, and stylish. In The AARP Guide to Revitalizing Your Home: Beautiful Living for the Second Half of Life, Rosemary Baker emphasizes that a home designed for aging in place can offer increased independence and safety, without sacrificing style and beauty. She also points out that the changes you make may increase the value of the home — another thing to keep in mind when considering your renovations.