For many, the term “aging in place” brings to mind seniors and institutional-looking grab bars. Clunky shower seats in the bathroom. Unsightly mobility aids. And, of course, the looming fear of what comes after. But staying in our homes, even as our bodies and minds slow down, doesn’t mean we have to institutionalize them.
That’s why design and construction professionals prefer to use the term “living in place.” The emphasis is not on aging, but on living our best lives in the homes we love through universal design. Home modifications that maintain the comfort and style we’re used to, but also provide the systems we need to live safely.
“Universal design is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.” That’s according to the Centre of Universal Design website, which goes on to say that, “An environment (or any building, product, or service in that environment) should be designed to meet the needs of all people who wish to use it. This is not a special requirement for the benefit of only a minority of the population. It is a fundamental condition of good design.”
And let’s face it: aging isn’t the only concern we have today that may require home modifications.
Why Having an Accessible Home Is So Important
Accidents (transportation-related or sports/hobby-related) resulting in broken bones or causing permanent disabilities. An unexpected or chronic medical condition, such as arthritis. Stroke and other cardiovascular diseases. Degenerative muscle diseases. Loss of sight or hearing. Memory issues. Children moving back home or older adults requiring extra care. All these things can put stress on a house ill-equipped to handle the changing needs of the family.
Additionally, the rising costs of healthcare have many people worried about their future as they get older. Senior independent living, assisted living, and nursing homes tend to be incredibly expensive. Living in place home modifications may provide a better cost-benefit vs. the assisted-living model.
There are social and emotional benefits, too, for people to live in their homes as long as they can. This is especially true for those entrenched in their communities through church, philanthropic activities, and extended family. And the availability of home health services gives homeowners even more motivation to stay put.
For homeowners in their mid-40s to early 70s, it’s the perfect time to think about modifying their homes to make them more comfortable and livable for the whole family, regardless of age.
Common Live-in-Place Accessibility Issues
“The Joint Center [for Housing Studies of Harvard University] projects that by 2035, 17 million older households will include at least one person with a mobility disability for whom stairs, traditional bathroom layouts, and narrow doors and corridors may pose challenges, a 77 percent increase from today.” That’s from the “Four Challenges to Aging in Place” blog by Jennifer Molinksy, a senior research associate at the JCHS. She continues, “Yet only 3.5 percent of U.S. housing units offer a zero-step entrance into the home, single-floor living, and wide doorways and hallways that accommodate someone in a wheelchair.”
But she says there’s potentially good news if you plan ahead. Making accessibility changes before anyone “in the household has limited mobility disabilities…can help lower the financial and emotional cost.”
The JCHS, in “Housing America’s Older Adults—Meeting the Needs of an Aging Population”, reports: “A major challenge to aging in place is ensuring that homes are safe and accessible. The goal of this design movement is to make the environment more accessible to people of all ages and abilities.
“Of specific focus here are five features that make homes accessible to those with impaired mobility and who have difficulty grabbing and turning knobs: no-step entries and single-floor living, which eliminate the need to navigate stairs; switches and outlets reachable at any height; extra-wide hallways and doors to accommodate those in wheelchairs; and lever-style door and faucet handles.”
Add Accessibility Feature Now So You Don’t Have to Later
While many existing homes have at least one of these five features, only 57 percent have more than one. “Single-floor living is most widely available (found in 76 percent of housing units), followed by accessible electrical controls (44 percent) and no-step entries (42 percent),” it says. “The least common amenities are extra-wide doors and hallways and lever-style door and faucet handles (both available in only 8 percent of units).”
Mobility issues are a common problem for older adults. But it can also be true for younger people recovering from an accident or a diagnosis of ALS or MS. For example, a fall from a ski could make living at home difficult once you leave the hospital. Homes with open floor plans are easier to navigate, but older houses with many small rooms require more planning.
Renovations for Good Design
Living in place home modifications can include:
- Widened hallways and doorways and exterior ramps to allow for easier access of walkers and wheelchairs
- Stylish handrails to provide stability
- Better lighting and more accessible/ergonomic light switches to help prevent falls
If mobility is not an immediate issue, a bathroom remodel may be the best place to start. In 2008, the CDC reports an estimated 234,094 nonfatal bathroom injuries among people older than 15 were treated in U.S. emergency rooms. Falls were the most common cause of injury (81.1 percent). The most frequent diagnosis was contusions or abrasions (29.3 percent) to the head or neck (31.2 percent).
Today, there are countless fixtures and finish options that pair safety with style. And while the ADA legislated nonresidential buildings, many of those products are also suitable for residential remodels as well.
Many ADA-compliant bathroom features can be included in living in place home modifications. These make bathrooms handicapped accessible, such as wall-hung sinks and toilets, or higher, “comfort-height” toilets. Grab bars, towel bars, even toilet paper holders are available in extra-strength versions with high-end finishes. Walk-in showers can replace a bathtub footprint and incorporate multiple amenities. Examples include a variety of body sprays, aromatherapy, and chromatherapy for a spa-like feel.
Living in Place Home Modifications: Hiring the Right Contractor
Once we decide to make the necessary living-in-place changes to our homes or build an addition for children or parents moving in, we have to hire a remodeling contractor — and no one likes this process. But we must vet the people who will be entering our homes to ensure they build everything to code.
First, make sure the remodeling contractor has certification in aging in place or universal design. The National Association of Home Builders offers a Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist program. The National Association of Remodeling offers a Universal Design Certified Professional program.
A contractor certified in these disciplines understands how to ask the right questions of potential clients. This helps them ascertain what their specific needs are and to apply the correct design principles to meet those needs.
Design Principles for Accessibility
- Equitable use. The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.
- Flexibility in use. The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
- Simple and intuitive use. Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
- Perceptible information. The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.
- Tolerance for error. The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
- Low physical effort. The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.
- Size and space for approach and use. Appropriate size and space are provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use, regardless of user’s body size, posture or mobility.
Living in place is a decision many of us would prefer to make for ourselves. Proper planning with a certified living-in-place professional ensures your needs are met with dignity and compassion. So you have the comfort, safety, and control needed to stay in your home as long as you like. Reach out to an Aging in Place Specialist with Live in Place Designs to learn more.