Trend Report: Aging in place can mean major alterations, but it’s also as basic as changing your lightbulbs
As Americans grow older, many have to make a decision about whether they will remain in their own home, which is often referred to as aging in place, or move to some kind of assisted living.
Surveys have shown that the majority would prefer to stay put, and that as a result of events of the past year the preference has grown even stronger.
“Some older homeowners who may have planned to sell and move to retirement communities or assisted living facilities are holding off on making a move due to health concerns during the pandemic,” says Amanda Pendleton, a home trends expert with Zillow.
Yet for a home to be suitable for aging in place it must be as hazard-free as possible, particularly from hazards that lead to falls, which according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are the leading cause of injuries among older Americans.
Here are some fall-proofing home improvements that anyone thinking about aging in place should consider. They are based on the principles of Universal Design, which is a standard aimed at making buildings, products, and environments accessible to everyone, regardless of physical limitations.
Although falls can occur more frequently in other parts of a home, a bathroom’s hard, potentially slippery surfaces mean that falls there are more likely to have serious consequences. Protect against them with securely braced grab bars for the shower, bathtub and toilet. Think about replacing one traditional shower (best if it’s on the ground floor) with a zero-threshold roll-in shower. The upgrade can be pricey because the original shower pan must be replaced, but Zillow data finds that a home with a zero-threshold shower can sell for 5% more than expected. Also consider a shower bench, a hand-held showerhead, and replacing a standard-height toilet with a more elevated one. Tubs and showers should have a non-slip coating and floors should have a giving, slip-resistant surface.
The ideal home for aging in place has a single story. If that’s not an option, consider converting a ground floor room to a primary suite. Along with advantages such as making for an easier exit in case of fire, the ground-floor arrangement can also serve as an in-law suite, which Zillow says can help the home to sell for more than otherwise expected. The bed itself should be a low-profile design, with bed rails if necessary.
Stairs should have sturdy handrails on both sides, with contrasting colors on the steps and risers, and easy-to-reach light switches at the top and bottom of the staircase. Keep these areas non-slip and free from throw rugs. For a grander solution, consider either a stair lift or a home elevator. A stair lift on a straight stair rail is something a pro can often install in a day. As for elevators, although ideal for anyone using a wheelchair or a walker, most require a significant remodeling job. One type, however, known as a home lift, takes up less room and may call for no more remodeling than cutting a hole between the two floors.
The ideal entryway is an even-surfaced, non-slip, unobstructed walkway leading to a weather-sheltered, stepless entrance. Along the walkway, cracks should be patched, uneven surfaces leveled, and shrubbery trimmed back. If there are steps, a ramp is probably necessary. As throughout the house, lever-style door handles should be installed.
Most 75-year-olds are said to require four times as much light as 20-year-olds in order to see well. So good lighting is a must throughout the house, but especially in areas such as hallways, where clutter can create a tripping hazard. Standing on a ladder to replace bulbs can also be dangerous, so use LED lights, which need to be replaced far less often than traditional incandescent bulbs. Light switches (along with outlets and doorknobs) should be lowered so that they are wheelchair accessible. Also consider replacing them with rocker-type switches, which require less hand pressure to operate, or even motion-sensor lighting.
Because falls among older people are almost inevitable, the best flooring for aging in place insures a softer landing. In bedrooms and the living room, that makes carpeting a good choice, but only if it is low pile, so as not to impede the easy navigation of a wheelchair or walker. Cork and rubber are soft and have excellent slip resistance. Vinyl works well in kitchens and bathrooms, where water might be a problem. Try to minimize transitions from one flooring surface to another, as the dividing thresholds can be a tripping hazard, as can area rugs. Avoid ceramic tile.
The key to safe aging-in-place kitchen design is that everything is within easy reach without unnecessary stretching or bending. That means adjusting the height of countertops, cabinets, and appliances may be necessary, as well as installing a shallower sink, pullout shelving, more easily grasped cabinet handles and more slip-resistant flooring.
Almost every room can benefit from a more open design that allows for easier navigation with wheelchairs and walkers. Experts suggest an open 5-foot x 5-foot area in the middle of the living room. There should also be 42 inches to 48 inches of clearance along wheelchair pathways in any room, with doorways at least 36 inches wide.
Perhaps the smartest move for aging in place is to plan for it. One way is to consult with a remodeler who is a Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS), a designation established by the National Association of Homebuilders in collaboration with, among others, the American Association of Retired Persons.
Find a CAPS specialist online at www.nahb.org/nahb-community/Directories/Professionals-with-Home-Building-Designations
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