an any-age home

While we love to explore new places, when it comes to settling down, most of us would agree there’s no place like home. But between that second floor bedroom, the oversized bathtub and ubiquitous basement laundry space, home is not always as practical or safe as it could – or should – be.

So, can we adequately age-defy our homes and stay put? Fortunately, the experts assure us that incorporating universal design concepts may well enable us to comfortably remain at home, while other family members thrive there as well.

“Aging is inevitable, but you can stay at home with some supportive changes that make your familiar surroundings more adaptable and user-friendly to your changing needs,” says Marianne Brower. A Manhattan-based former nurse practitioner who holds a master’s degree from the Pratt Institute, Brower helps people create safer and more comfortable environments for the long haul.

According to Brower, “There are beneficial, sometimes imperceptible alterations you can make that not only help you stay in your home but provide the additional benefit of helping you avoid a fall, which could result in a serious injury.” Start off by evaluating your home and pinpointing, with the help of a professional, which design updates make the most sense for you, she advises.

Universal design is when an environment is designed and composed to maximize its use by everyone regardless of size, age or ability. These design concepts can help not just you, but everyone in the family. For instance, all ages and abilities can appreciate the benefits of a walk-in shower. Similarly, cooks of all sizes and abilities may welcome kitchen counters at varying heights to accommodate those who are standing, small children who want to help, and even a family member in a wheelchair who wants to pitch in on dinner prep.

Some key areas where you can improve the livability of your home with universal design include:

Your Bathroom
Bathrooms are a very common place for falls to occur, warns Brower. To feel comfortable and relaxed when showering and bathing, you’ll want to minimize your risk of slipping or tripping. A walk-in (stepless) shower is ideal, she says, and grab bars will make you feel secure. [Grab bars should be professionally installed as they need to be screwed into the wall’s studs.] Thankfully, says Brower, “There are some very attractive grab bars out there that don’t look institutional.”

The threshold from the bathroom into the shower should be flat with a linear drain, and it’s a good idea to have the shower controls located at the opposite side of the shower from the shower head. A handheld shower head positioned at your waist or chest height can be a godsend and there can be multiple wall attachments for it. “This way, if two people use the shower, it works for both of them,” explains Brower.

Consider pre-setting the water temperature control to reduce the risk of burns. And the toilet should be comfort height, which means it’s a little higher than a regular toilet, says Julio Herrera, a designer at Pinnacle Kitchen and Bath Design in Thornwood, NY.

Kitchen Do’s and Don’ts
Pull-out drawers in kitchen cabinets are easier on your back, says Enver Matoshi, a designer at Universal Kitchen Design in Dobbs Ferry, because you don’t have to bend down to reach the pots and pans inside. Additionally, recessed lights installed in the cabinets can be really helpful if you have low vision, he says.

The design question he gets most often from his older clientele is, what cabinets and countertops need the least maintenance? “I recommend natural stained cabinets and quartz countertops,” says Matoshi. “Quartz is very durable and it doesn’t stain.”

He also recommends positioning counters at different heights – some lower and some higher. “Someone could sit down and pull up a chair to whatever height works for them.”

Not leaving adequate space around the center kitchen island is a common mistake, says Herrera. “Ideally, you want to have enough room so that in the future, a wheelchair could comfortably fit in the kitchen between the island and the appliances and counters.”

Herrera recommends touch faucets for the sink and easy-to-grasp cabinet knobs. You may also want a heating element in the floor. “This way, you can even walk barefoot in your kitchen and not feel cold.”

A range-top stove that has a built-in, eye-level oven can be a boon to cooks who have arthritis or back problems. “If you have space for this, an eye-level oven is much easier to reach into,” assures Herrera. And the new stoves have digital screens with large letters, making it much easier to set both time and temperature.

Flooring that works
Flooring should be non-slip, advises Brower. Marble and granite tend to be slippery, but certain ceramic surfaces have the look of marble and are non-slip. Hardwood floors are another excellent option, says Matoshi. “They are not as hard or cold as ceramic floors.” And they’re not slippery.

If you have carpet, it should be low pile to lessen the likelihood of tripping. And definitely no scatter rugs, unless they’re secured down. Large tiles also make falls more likely when they are wet; choose smaller tiles with more grout.

Let there be light!
As your vision changes, good lighting is essential. “Improving overall ambient lighting level and task lighting level can reduce your risk of falls,” says Brower. Motion-activated lighting in the bathroom is a good idea. “It’s great to have the automatic lighting when you step into the bathroom,” she says. “As people are on more medications, some of these medications can cause dizziness when you first get out of bed.”

Automatic timers in various areas of the house can keep your house well-lit so you don’t necessarily go from a dark room to a light room. Since your eyes don’t adjust as quickly to changes in light levels as you age, it’s good to be proactive about lighting, advises Brower.

Make your bedroom a safe haven
A motion detector that enables a light to switch on when you enter your bedroom is a nice touch. You also may want to set up an extra bedroom on your ground floor. “It works well if you have a bathroom here with a small shower, too,” says Brower.

While home may be where your heart is, think with your head so as not to neglect your changing needs. If you’re planning on staying put, do what you can to make your home a safer, more comfortable environment for the years ahead.


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