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8 Small Home Upgrades With Big Impact for Aging

Consider minor changes to make your house a safer place to grow older

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​It doesn’t always take a big home addition, a sizable financial investment or an overhaul of the way you live to ensure that you can stay in your home as you age. ​​

But that doesn’t mean people know which smaller upgrades to tackle. Interior designer Karen Topjian, founder of MCM Designs, who works with many clients who want to remain in their homes as they get older, advises homeowners to start by assessing their surroundings. Determine which projects may be DIY and which may be better executed by a professional, to create a safe and efficient place to age.​

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Topjian and interior designer Allie Mann of Case Design, both of whom are certified aging-in-place specialists, offer these ideas. ​

1. Change out doorknobs and other hardware

Many older homes have round doorknobs, which people can find hard to turn as they develop arthritis or lose dexterity in their hands. It’s easy and relatively inexpensive to switch your doors to lever handles. ​

When thinking about doors, include kitchen and bathroom cabinets. Would they be easier to open with different hardware? Also consider swapping out knob faucets for easier-to-use levers. Mann recommends installing motion-sensor faucets. These were originally designed for commercial spaces like restaurants, “but we’re seeing more and more offerings for residential use.” ​

2. Declutter, then upgrade storage options

To avoid tripping on the stuff that collects on floors and in hallways, set up dedicated storage areas for small items that get underfoot. ​

Start with shoes and slippers, Topjian says, which people often trip on at night. Create a spot for shoes in each room, like a rack next to the front door or a basket in the bedroom. Then get in the habit of placing your footwear in the designated area each time you remove it. ​

The same goes for grandchildren’s toys. Make sure there’s a special chest or bin in each room where grandchildren play during visits. When it’s time for them to leave, make a game out of gathering up all of their toys and placing them in that storage spot. ​

Topjian also suggests creating a dedicated spot in each room for reading glasses (so you won’t have to go hunting for them) and adding extra phone chargers in rooms where you spend a lot of time. Plug in your phone or tablet anywhere you sit down to relax, so you’ll know where it is and the battery will be charged. ​

3. Create safer floors and walkways

Small rugs that can slide around present a fall risk, so swap out several small throw rugs for a large low-pile area rug that’s secured by a pad underneath and anchored by pieces of furniture. ​

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Be mindful of transitions from one space to another, Mann says. “What does it look like on your floor? Do you have a continuous flooring surface? It may be as simple as changing out your threshold, maybe to a slimmer profile.” ​

Also, be sure all walkways are wide enough, and if necessary, remove decorative pieces of furniture, like console tables, that can make an entryway or hallway too narrow. ​

4. Add user-friendly lighting

“As we age we need more light around the home. So that can mean getting brighter bulbs or just increasing the light you have in the space,” Mann says. ​

Another easy fix: Replace older light switches with rocker switches that toggle back and forth. These are easier to maneuver and can be installed with dimmers that slide up and down along the side of the switch. ​

Also, consider hiring an electrician to lower the location of some light switches, putting them within reach of someone in a wheelchair or in another seated position. Another option is to install voice-activated lights or light bulbs, or ones you can control from your smartphone. ​

Be sure to have safe lighting for nighttime hours. Install nightlights that illuminate your path from the bedroom to the bathroom, for example. (A tip from Mann: Install what are called toe-kick lights toward the base of the wall, so the floor will be illuminated but there won’t be nightlights at eye level that could wake you up.) ​

5. Get a video doorbell

An easy electronic upgrade, a video doorbell means you won’t have to hurry to the door as soon as the bell rings. You can check the video feed from your phone or iPad to determine who is there, see if packages have been delivered or use a speaker to talk with the person outside. Some of these come with a monthly or annual fee, so be sure to investigate the possibility of added costs. ​

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6. Add safe, visible handrails

Topjian advises clients to paint banisters and other railings in an attractive but contrasting color from their surroundings, so they’re easy to see as you grasp for them. ​

For added security, install grab bars in a shower and elsewhere in a bathroom. Mann emphasizes that these should be installed by a professional who can properly block and anchor the bars to the interior surface of the wall. Bathroom grab bars and other handrails should never be placed on top of tiles or attached to a wall’s surface. ​

7. Upgrade your shower and toilet

If your home has a traditional bathtub that you step up and into, it may be time to shift to a curbless shower that has no barrier as you enter. Make sure the space where you step into the shower is wide enough to potentially accommodate a wheelchair, and then add a (professionally installed) grab bar and shower seat to create a safer bathing space. ​

Another optional bathroom upgrade: Major brands offer bidet toilets that can make personal hygiene easier as people age.​

8. Swap out your chairs

People may overlook this, Topjian says, but it’s important to have the right kind of chairs as you get older. ​

For the kitchen, dining room and anywhere else you like to sit, be sure the chairs are sturdy, have arms to steady you as you stand up or sit down and have a firm seat that’s not apt to slip off. ​

And don’t forget, Topjian says, “stay away from swivel chairs.” 

Video: Reconfiguring Your Apartment for Aging-in-Place

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