Updating your home with a few universal design features can enable you to live there longer independently. The cost of the changes can range from a couple of hundred dollars for a comfort-height toilet to more than $100,000 for a downstairs master suite addition.
You can even make some simple changes now — say, adding a few grab bars in the bathroom or some task lighting in the kitchen — while you start planning and saving for bigger, more expensive projects, such as a bathroom or kitchen remodel.
While safety is one of the key principles in universal design, you don’t have to sacrifice style or make your home resemble a hospital. These days, many home products designed to help you age in place are as attractive as anything you might find in a designer showroom.
Consider these ideas to incorporate into your existing home or add to the wish list for your new retirement haven.
Make it easier to get in and around
Grand front porches, elaborate door handles and raised or sunken decks may lend impressive curb appeal to your home now, but these features can turn into obstacles later if you have arthritis or use a wheelchair.
Bruce Nemovitz, a Certified Seniors Real Estate Specialist in Milwaukee, recommends eliminating steps to decks and patios and instead making them level with the adjacent indoor rooms. Installing a ramp from the garage floor to the door is another good idea, he says.
Replacing door knobs with levers can also help with ease of entry, says Paul Sullivan of NAHB Remodelers in Newton, Massachusetts, who did just that for a client who happens to be well ahead of her golden years.
“It’s for a young, single woman, but she loves it because if she’s coming in with groceries in her arms, she can elbow the door handle and get through the door,” Sullivan says.
To make the inside of your house easier to navigate, consider widening doorways to 36 inches or more to accommodate a wheelchair if needed. A hallway should be at least 42 inches wide for optimum wheelchair access, says Dallas interior designer Barbara Gilbert.
Fall-proof your floors
Choosing the right flooring materials — and removing any stumbling blocks between rooms with different types of floors — can make a big difference in fall prevention.
“We try to make sure they have flush transitions between spaces,” Gilbert says of her design projects for senior clients. “Sometimes with hardwood floors, when you go through a door, there’s a threshold that can be a hazard.”
Area rugs present another chance for unsteady feet to trip, so with aging clients, Gilbert prefers to either eliminate them altogether or make sure they’re secured with pads underneath and furniture on top.
The safety factor also goes up when you choose low-pile carpet and avoid high-gloss finishes on hard floors, Gilbert adds.
Create a comfortable kitchen
The joy of cooking can turn into a muscle-aching chore for older homeowners whose kitchen design fails to accommodate their needs. When Washington, D.C., designer Ebonee Bachman redid the apartment kitchens of two retirees, both named the difficulty of reaching into upper cabinets as their biggest concern. Bachman responded by using base cabinets for the bulk of their storage space.
“If there were items overhead, (they wanted) some of the bells and whistles, like the pullout drawers and trays, the Lazy Susans, to make accessibility a lot easier,” Bachman says.
Installing a single-lever faucet can make your sink easier and safer to use. Having one lever makes it less likely that you’ll accidentally scald yourself by turning on the hot water and forgetting to temper it with the cold, Sullivan says.