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Sneaky Ways to Age in Place

Smart and stylish home updates for now and later

Sneaky Ways to Age in Place

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Universal design features can be attractive and make your home an easier place to live at any stage in life.

If you love your home and like the idea of staying there a long, long time, you're not alone. A study by the Harvard University Joint Center for Housing Studies says that most Americans would similarly like to age in place. What did they also find out? A scant 1 percent of homes are equipped with the “universal design” features that would make such a goal more possible.

Look around the house, and chances are that the doorways would be too narrow for a walker or wheelchair, door handles would be difficult to operate with arthritic hands, and lighting would be less than adequate for older eyes.

If getting around (and stepping up and reaching over) is still a breeze at your current age, you may resist the thought of making modifications now that risk making your stylish space resemble a nursing home.

But universal design features, if done right, can be attractive and make your home an easier place to live at any stage in life. They're especially important to consider if you're going to renovate anyway.

“It's not just grab bars and wheelchair ramps and raised toilet seats,” says Marianne Cusato, a housing expert for HomeAdvisor. “If you can design your kitchen in such a way where you don't have to climb up on a ladder to get the dishes, then there are fewer opportunities to fall and break a hip.” And if you're finally getting around to renovating the master bedroom, adding an upstairs laundry can be a major help in the future — plus a nice convenience to have in the meantime.

With some foresight, a homeowner can incorporate stylish yet accessible touches to make a space more inviting for everyone. Some fixes are so sneaky that no one would ever suspect they were anything more than just a great idea.

The bathroom

During a bathroom update, install a walk-in shower without any lip to step over. (This design feature, a Zillow survey showed, is also highly desirable to buyers, should you later sell your home.) Textured tiles or small mosaics with lots of grout lines can be less slippery than smooth ones.

Add a removable showerhead and a fixed seat so that you can sit while you bathe or even wash a pet or a small child. “It’s great for women who want to shave their legs,” said Heather Brin, the principal architect of Aging in Place Architecture in Port Jefferson, N.Y. “It’s just about making life easier.”

Reinforce the walls with wood before installing tile so that grab bars could be added later if needed. You can also choose towel racks and toilet paper holders that double as grab bars, too.

To create space below a sink that could accommodate a wheelchair, consider a pedestal style, a four-legged console, or even a wall-mounted sink — not a vanity with a low toe kick. Lever faucets will be easier to operate down the road than those with handles (and they're just plain easier to use for anyone with soapy hands).

Kitchen

Kitchens are high traffic areas. So if you’re remodeling, design one that is easy to navigate, with open space and pullout cabinetry. For lots of space for guests or to accommodate something such as a walker, experts recommend expanding the pathways around any island to be at least 48 inches wide instead of the standard 36. Also, move the microwave to counter level and elevate the dishwasher so you do not have to bend down to empty it.

To include varied countertop heights, add a kitchen desk, which could double as a place to sit while you prepare a meal. Choose low-maintenance materials such as quartz countertops over more finicky materials like granite. Splurge on a pot filler, a-swing out faucet mounted above the stove, so that you don't have to lift and carry a heavy pot of water from the sink to the stove.

Do the work properly, and your efforts in the kitchen will add value to the home, says Bonnie J. Lewis, the founder of 55+TLC Interior Design in Scottsdale, Ariz. “The return on investment is there.”

Lighting

Swap out incandescent bulbs for smart LEDs such as ones in the Philips Hue line. They can be customized for color and programmed with a smartphone, and should last for years.

Install lighting in hallways and bathrooms with the purpose of preventing tripping in the dark. You can go with recessed lights on a dimmer (so you can keep them on all night) or with motion sensors that turn on lights as you enter.

Especially in the kitchen, add plenty of task lighting. Throughout the house, consider recessed lighting and ceiling and wall fixtures so that you don't have to wander around a room and turn on lamps with cords you could trip over.

Swap out traditional light switches for rocker-style ones. Raise the height of the wall outlets so they are easier to reach.

Doors and floors

Widening doorways to at least 32 inches improves access for a person using a walker or wheelchair. But simply adding offset hinges can widen the swing of an existing door by about two inches. This economical solution can “happen in a day” and saves the expense of reframing, says Michael A. Thomas, president of the Design Collective Group in Palm Desert, Calif. and a coauthor of Residential Design for Aging in Place.

Swap out doorknobs for levers. Install smart locks on exterior doors so you can enter without having to find or turn a key. Remove or reduce thresholds to reduce trip hazards.

Avoid area rugs — which can pose trip hazards — and if possible, warm up smooth surfaces underneath with radiant heat. Choose flooring materials such as wall-to-wall carpeting, cork, hardwood and bamboo. Such options tend to be durable, low maintenance, slip resistant and gentle on the knees. 

“You've got to plan for the future because you don't know what is going to occur in your life,” Thomas says. “This isn't about whether we're 65. This is about us having our independence throughout our lives.”

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