Adapt your home to be livable for years

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William Hirsch

As people age, many choose to stay in their current homes near friends, family, places of worship and other places that have become integral parts of their lives. This is part of a growing trend toward “aging in place.” The term applies to those who want to live as they have in their current home for as long as possible.

As we age, our mobility and capabilities change. Steps can become a challenge. Our balance, vision, hearing and mental processes can deteriorate. We lose strength.

Can your current home accommodate your physical changes? Normal everyday things that once seemed benign might become obstacles and hazards.

The good news is that a number of relatively simple modifications to your home can make it more pleasant and safe to live in for many more years to come.

You may not know what your future challenges might be. But we do know that most people will experience a decrease in mobility. Here are a few things you can do to make your house easier to live in should you become less mobile.

Plan for one-floor living.

Stairs will be your biggest obstacle. If your bedroom is upstairs now, take a look at your plan and see if there is a way to alter the use of the rooms to let you live on the first floor and leave the upstairs for guests. This might require adding a bedroom and bathroom suite onto the first floor. Or you might be able to convert a seldom-used formal living room into a bedroom.

Make other floors accessible.

If one-floor living is not feasible, look for ways to add an elevator or stair lift. Is there a closet that can convert to an elevator? Less costly than building an additional bedroom suite, an elevator can be deferred and installed quickly if the need arises. The point is to look into the possibility and plan for one now.

Make the entry accessible.

You need at least one entry door with no step. This entrance should be covered to shelter it from snow and rain. Often this is the door into the house from the garage. If you have a few steps up to the house now, a ramp can be built.

Eliminate tripping hazards.

Be sure to remove any raised thresholds at interior doors or uneven transitions between rooms. These small level changes can be particularly hazardous because they are easily overlooked and create tripping hazards.

Make sure your doorways are wide enough.

A wheelchair may be in your future, even if it is only temporary while recovering from an injury. You’ll want to be able to pass through your doorways.

There are some misconceptions about the required width for access. The Americans with Disabilities Act, known as the ADA, mandates a clear opening width of 32”. That would require a 36” door, since a door opened to 90 degrees would protrude into the opening and reduce the clear width by about two inches.

You probably have only one door that wide in your house — your front door. Breaking through walls to widen doors is often not practical.

Fortunately, your home does not have to comply with the ADA requirements like public buildings do. Typical wheelchairs are only 24” to 27” wide. The 32” requirement is meant to accommodate all wheelchairs, even extra-wide ones. So unless you are a very large person, there is no need to have doors that wide. 

I recommend you make sure your doors are at least 30” wide (though 32” is even better). If the opening is still too narrow, you can rehang the door with offset hinges to allow it to swing further out of the way.

Maneuvering space is essential.

The ADA requires a five-foot diameter clear floor space in all rooms, particularly bathrooms, of public buildings. The swing of a door cannot intrude into that space. The purpose of this clear area is so that, should a person fall to the floor and not be able to get up, another person could enter the room to help. If the room is too small, the fallen person could block the door from being pushed in and opened.

The solution is to rehang your door so it swings out. Then no matter where the fallen person is, a rescuer could open the door and get in. Another option is to simply remove the door altogether.

Install grab bars and additional railings.

With mobility problems, things we do every day — like getting in and out of showers, on and off toilets, and even walking down a hallway — can become difficult. Installing good, solidly anchored grab bars in showers, tubs, at toilets, and even along hallways can give security to those who are less stable.

Grab bars encourage people to stay ambulatory and not require a wheelchair. The more we all walk, even slowly, the healthier we remain.

Install a shower seat and a hand-held showerhead.

Showering while seated is the most convenient and safe way to bathe with diminished mobility and balance. This seat does not have to be built in. A heavy teak stool can work. Just get one that is designed to not tip easily.

A shower seat, coupled with good grab bars, will make it easier to get in and out of the shower, even if you are transferring from a wheelchair.

Change door knobs to lever handles.

Lever door handles have been customary in Europe for centuries. But in America, we have traditionally used knobs. These can look great, but once your hands weaken and become arthritic, door knobs become barriers.

Consider swapping knobs for levers that you can use by leaning an elbow on them. You’ll find them to be easier to use with wet hands, too. This change to levers applies to faucets, too.

Other changes that can make aging in place easier:

Remove floor surfaces that could be slippery. Improve lighting in the house. Install a toilet riser seat. Install slide-out shelves in cabinets. Change cabinet knobs to D-shaped handles.

Change to LED lights for much longer bulb life and lower energy costs. Install smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms with a siren and a flashing light. Install battery-operated emergency lighting in hallways. Do things to reduce required home maintenance. And of course, install an emergency call system, especially if you live alone.

If you do a little planning and make a few modifications, your house can be your home for a long time.

William Hirsch, an architect, is the author of Designing Your Perfect House. Learn more at  www.designingyourperfecthouse.com and www.about-home-design.com.