Our health care system and assisted living communities just can’t keep up with the rise in population of older Americans. Aging in place has become the option that many families prefer. It only makes sense, as aging in place is associated with higher rates of independence, which translates to higher quality of life. People are living longer and thrive better when they can remain at home for as long as possible. That means living spaces should be made suitable to safety and that practical needs are met, a concept known as universal design. Here are what the experts are saying when it comes to the way a home is laid out for a person planning to age in place.
Remodeling or Purchasing New
It isn’t always an option to sell an existing home to purchase a new aging-friendly one. There are ways to update and modify an existing home that will make it more suitable to the needs of an older person or couple. Architects with This Old House have come up with some of the best suggestions for ensuring that the layout of a home is safe and that it effectively addresses common concerns of the elderly.
Flooring is a major concern as it contributes significantly to a high risk of falling. With 2.5 million older people receiving treatment in the emergency rooms each year from falls alone, the layout of a good aging in place home should include slip resistant flooring, low-pile carpeting, and minimal to no area rugs. Tripping points in the home, such as thresholds in between rooms, should be removed or modified so that they are level or rise gradually. This not only helps reduce the risk of tripping and falling, it also accommodates the use of walkers and wheelchairs.
It’s the Small Things
As people age, lack of hand strength is often an overlooked, yet daily feature of aging. Door knobs can become problems. The architects with This Old House also recommend replacing traditional door knobs with the newer door levers. There is no twisting involved. Twisting can sometimes be painful for people with arthritic or weak wrists. It may also be an option to remove doors altogether and create a more open layout.
Stairs: The Bane of Elderly Existence
Having a one story home is high on many seniors’ priority lists when planning for the later years. Stairs are not only a safety issue; they are a hassle for older people with joint problems and mobility issues. However, having no stairs at all isn’t always possible. By the time seniors require accommodations for aging in place, a home could be paid off and the idea of moving might have little appeal. If stairs are an existing feature of a home, there are ways to make stairs safer, including installation of a chair lift, adding additional lighting, and ensuring that the flooring on the stairs is the safest possible. It may be possible to re-design a staircase to put in landings, widen the area of each stair, and install handrails on both sides. Selling an existing home with stairs to buy one without should not be ruled out and is best thought of as early as possible.
Smaller May Be Better
The home a person or couple decides to live in as they age is a very important investment that can have a lasting impact on the quality of aging in place. The American Society of Interior Designers conducted a research project on aging and the impact of interior design, and they found that in planning for the future, people are as concerned about the livability of their homes as they concerned about money and health care access. Almost 40% of those wanting to age in place agreed that size has been an issue with their current homes, with almost twice as many participants saying their homes were too large and others saying theirs weren’t large enough.
Downsizing was a major benefit the interior designers noted in the study. Maintaining a smaller home is much more manageable and cost efficient for the elderly. It also allows for the customization of certain aging in place features already mentioned as well as the following:
- Updated appliances for greater reliability
- Taller counter tops
- Better flow to the layout of the home for improved mobility (i.e., an open floor plan)
- Laundry rooms that are on the main floor
- Improved brighter lighting throughout the home
- Wider doorways and hallways to accommodate wheelchairs and walkers
There is a lot to consider when planning to age at home. Time and budget concerns go into deciding if remodeling is the way to go or if it would be best and/or feasible to move altogether. It may be that only be one or two rooms need remodeling. Many home accessibility consultants or general contractors offer free consultations, and it doesn’t hurt to look into newer homes earlier on that can be customized for future needs within a personal budget. It may be more cost effective in the long run to purchase another home than to remodel. Prudent information gathering should help to determine what course to take.
Henry, R. 6 Ideas for Elder-Friendly Design. This Old House Online. Available at http://www.thisoldhouse.com/toh/article/0,,519817,00.html. Last Visited April 26, 2016.
American Society of Interior Designers. Aging in Place: Aging and the Impact of Interior Design. Available at https://www.asid.org/sites/default/files/aging_in_place1.pdf. Last Visited April 26, 2016.