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Smart Design to Accommodate Aging in Place

Two more increasingly popular topics in the design world are “Aging in Place” and “Universal Design.” It’s all about accessibility and functionality for everyone in the home. Here are a few things to think about for you and your extended family.

When my parents moved into their “retirement” home in their mid-60s, they chose a house that has a first floor master bedroom and easy entry from the driveway and garage. They knew that while they were both still healthy and spry at that time, they might not always be so and they wanted to be prepared. Good thing. At 75, still healthy and spry, my father had a stroke that left him permanently disabled. Suddenly, a house that was easy to enter and a master bedroom on the first floor became the reason why he was able to spend the rest of his life, until he was nearly 84, enjoying his own home and sleeping in his own bed with his wife of almost 55 years. And now my mother, in her 80s, is also able to live there comfortably, without her family worrying about stairs and falling issues.

The National Association of Home Builders recently commissioned a study of Aging in Place remodeling. Their survey found that:

  • 78 percent added grab bars
  • 71 percent installed higher toilets
  • 60 percent upgraded to a curb-less shower
  • 57 percent widened doorways
  • 45 percent constructed ramps or lower thresholds
  • 45 percent enhanced lighting and task lighting

There are so many ways to improve the accessibility and functionality of our homes. And, the good news is that these improvements can be both aesthetically pleasing as well as good for everyone (regardless of current age or ability) in the home. Have you heard of Universal Design? Per the Center for Universal Design: “The intent of Universal Design is to simplify life for everyone by making products, communications, and the built environment more usable by as many people as possible at little or no extra cost. Universal Design benefits people of all ages and abilities.” 

The basic principles of UD are:

   1. Equitable use
   2. Flexibility in use
   3. Simple and intuitive
   4. Perceptible information
   5. Tolerance for error
   6. Low physical effort
   7. Size and space for approach and use

I spoke with Charlie Allen, a building contractor in Massachusetts who is a Certified Aging in Place (CAPS) Specialist. I asked Charlie for suggestions of some easy and still-attractive ways we can improve the accessibility of our homes when undergoing a remodel. Charlie suggests:

- Avoid trip hazards with low- or no-threshold doorways, curbless showers, and low pile carpeting. You can also select differently colored or textured carpeting to indicate height changes between rooms, a visual cue that will reduce tripping on steps. In bathrooms, Charlie suggests small-scale floor tiles. The larger 12x12 tiles may be beautiful, but they can be very slippery when wet. Small tiles, especially those with tumbled or textured surfaces, are safer as the grouting provides additional protection. Smaller tiles in a beautiful pattern, such as a classic hexagonal pattern, are certainly beautiful options.

Handrails and grab bars are excellent additions to the safety features of one’s home. With Home Care® by Moen®’s SecureMount™ grab bar installation system, safe can be stylish. New grab bars and anchors ensure the grab bars can be installed into any type of wall surface, with or without a stud. Best of all, the grab bars come in a variety of designer finishes and styles for a look that’s decorative, not institutional. In fact, Moen’s selection of grab bars includes designs that match many of their faucet families. 

Easy to operate lever handles for doors and faucets are the best choice for those with limited mobility because there’s no twisting or gripping necessary. Whether the handles are used by a small child, tall adult, or someone in a wheelchair, no strength or dexterity is needed. Lever door handles can even be turned by the elbow, hip, or knee! And now there are more beautiful styles to choose from.

 - Lighting - Good lighting is an essential safety feature. Using dimmers helps you achieve a beautiful look while providing the right level of lighting for anyone’s needs. Additionally, switch plates should be installed at a level and location that is easily accessible to someone sitting in a wheelchair. At the very least, have the electrical roughed in when doing a renovation so you can easily install additional lighting and switches should you ever need them.

We are always looking to improve the quality and appeal of our homes. Now more than ever, the ability for everyone in the family, regardless of age or ability, to be comfortable in the home is paramount. And, now more than ever, we have virtually unlimited options to create a home that has “universal” accessibility and decorative appeal! 

National Aging in Place Week 2009 will occur from October 12–18.


 •  Center for Universal Design 
 •  National Association of Homebuilders
 •  Certified Aging in Place Specialists