June 6, 2021 — It doesn’t matter. Whether you plan on staying in the home where you’ve always lived, buy a new retirement home, or you haven’t yet decided where you are going to retire, the same principle applies. You have to make sure that your home continues to be an easy place to live as you age in place – transitioning from newly retired to graceful old age. If you don’t, life in that home is going to get harder, if not impossible. This article will lay out some of the things that you absolutely, positively, must keep in mind; either if you buy a new home or decide to stay in the one where you live now. At the end of the article you will find a quick quiz to help you evaluate if your home is ready to support your retirement.
Commonly called universal design, the idea is take steps to insure that your home will be a friendly place to live, no matter what your physical condition in the future. It starts with the assumption that you might not always be able to see well, bend down or reach up, walk unassisted, or have great balance. That might not seem that important now, but it could easily be the case some day. Most homes assume that everyone who lives there has normal physical abilities. Sadly, not all of us will have those during the rest of our lives, and those changes usually come out of nowhere.
Keep these universal design principles in mind for the long haul:
Even floor levels. Imagine being in a wheelchair or having to use a walker, and coming to a step that requires you to go up or down to enter your kitchen or bedroom. Sure, maybe that day is far in your future, but what about when it does come? That step is going to be a constant, 24/7 barrier to your freedom, not to mention a source of falls.
No steps. Even more prohibitive that a single step is a flight of them to the master bedroom or basement laundry room. Sure you can usually buy a device to let you ride up, but it won’t be easy or inexpensive. Imagine a knee or hip replacement and a long rehab period, where are you going to sleep or bathe if the master is at the end of a flight of stairs?
First floor master bedroom. The obvious solution to the above is make sure that wherever you live, there is a first floor master. We continue to be astounded by how many complexes built for seniors put the bedrooms upstairs. Having the MBR upstairs might decrease the building footprint, but it also renders the unit useless for someone with a disability. In our opinion, a better plan would be for developers to stack units on top of each other and provide an elevator. That costs more money, so most don’t do it. In town or single family homes that have to have multiple levels, if space permits the better solution is to incorporate the MBR on the first floor, and move any additional bedrooms upstairs.
Lower and varied counter heights. People in wheelchairs can get shut out of working in some kitchens because the counters are too tall. So a better plan is to have varied heights, so people of various dimensions and abilities can take a turn at kitchen preparation (the same goes with bathrooms and laundry rooms). Experts say 32-34″ is a good height for accessibility, whereas standard counters are usually 36″. Pull out shelves and knee space underneath are two ways to achieve this.
Accessible storage cupboards. Why is it that dishes and glasses always seem to be up on high shelves, making people reach (and out of reach for wheelchairs)? A better solution is keep the most commonly used gear below the countertops, where anyone can replace or retrieve it without trouble. Keeping dishes near the dishwasher and sink saves a lot of trips and reaching too. Storage located from about 20 to 44 inches is considered optimal for accessible kitchen designs. To make work centers universally accessible, provide a clear floor space of 30×48 inches centered in front of the sink, dishwasher, cooktop, oven, and refrigerator.
Smart appliances. You can buy an oven with french doors that makes it easier to use than having to bend over a wide open door. Induction stove tops shut off the heat instantly, which is better for people with memory problems. Touchless faucets can make things easier too.
Levered door handles. Ever come in from the garage, hands full, and tried to wrestle with a door knob? An easy ergonomic solution is replace all of those knobs with easy to open levers.
Slip free surfaces. Slips and falls are one of the most frequent causes of serious accidents, many of them permanently ruining the mobility of older Americans. Avoiding slippery tiles and throw rugs are two ways to avoid those problems. So are contrasting colors near floors and walls that highlight the difference and keep people safe.
No threshold showers and baths. Having to heft your leg over a bathtub edge or even a small threshold can lead to a serious fall. When designing your new bathrooms, zero entry is the safe way to go. Having a seat is a good idea too.
Tall toilets. This is so easy. An extra height toilet allows for a more graceful seating along with eliminating problems getting up and down. The ideal height is 17-19 inches. Most toilets are too short for people our age.
Grab bars. Any expert on seniors who visits your home is going put a big emphasis on grab bars. Obviously you need them in the bath, shower, and bathroom. But how about closets, or any entryway where you put on or take off your shoes? Grab bars work to prevent life-changing falls – everyone needs them. With apologies to my father, towel racks don’t count!
Rocker light switches. Rather than stingy little switches, opt for lighted rocker switches that allow activation with any part of your hand or arm.
Outlets higher off the ground. No, you shouldn’t have to bend over and struggle to plug in something. The ideal solution is a set of outlets that require minimal bending.
Task lighting. Our eyes aren’t what they used to be. So use a lighting consultant or your own examinations to figure out where in your home you require strong light for everyday activities. The kitchen is one place, of course, but are the lights placed where you actually do the work? Wherever you read, whether it is the bedroom or the den, you deserve enough light to allow your eyes to see what you are about.
Ramp entry to home. You might not need it now, but some unexpected day you might. So if you can provide either an entry at grade or the room for a ramp option, you will be prepared for the day when you might have a problem. We discovered that when our father in law came to visit. There was no way for him to get in the house without having to be carried up some stairs! One or two steps are fairly easily overcome with a ramp, more than that might require more space, if it is there.
Access to public transportation. Someday you might not be able to drive, temporarily or permanently. But, if you live near public transportation, you won’t be trapped.
Outfitting your home for the long haul is a lot easier if you are building a new one. You can write these changes into the contract, and the charges will either be minimal or negligible. Retrofitting an older home can be trickier. Some changes, like door handles and light switches are easy, and you might even make them yourself. Finding out how to add a master bedroom to an already small floorplan, however, could be impossible. Some people are fortunate that they have the option to add an Accessory Dwelling Unit, either on their own property, or that of one of their children or friends. There, universal design can be built in from the ground up.
AARP has a free app called HomeFit, which can scan a room and make suggestions. There are also aging in place specialists as well as architects and therapists who can suggest changes. Home Depot has an “Independent Living” concept to help with accessibility, as does Lowes with its “Accessible Home“.
To find out how ready your home is for retirement take our quick quiz. Your home will get a score, and you will know what needs to be done. Take the Quiz.
Comments: How are you doing on outfitting your home for the long haul? Do you have a plan? Or do you think you will never have any mobility issues? Please share your thoughts in the Comments section below.
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