Adaptable home design and modifications being good investments for Independent Senior Living, leads us into a general discussion on adaptable home design to maximize independence. If done during the planning stages of a build or remodel, it really makes good economic sense, relative to the cost of assisted living and other more cost-intensive housing options.

This kind of housing is called various things—universal housing, aging in place, life cycle housing, adaptable housing, handicapped housing and more. It includes a mix of fixed accessible features, like an open floor plan, wide hallways and doors, as well as adaptable features that are appealing to all of the home’s residents, while not compromising property values (in fact, in many communities, it will add to the value).

Having both disabled and aging family members myself, I am keenly aware of how accessibility can impact the quality of day-to-day life.  For this reason, I will address overall safety issues, as well as the exterior of the home and getting around common areas of the house, along with simple kitchen, bedroom, bath and laundry considerations. Some may be done out of necessity, while others may be on your long-term wish list.

So, where should you start? Think of worse case scenarios, and work backward from there. How can your home be modified or adjusted, so that its exterior and interior are esthetically pleasing, yet practical for someone with mobility issues. For purposes of discussion, think about if you were in a wheelchair, had no one to assist you, and had limited hand grip strength to not only maneuver around, but to transfer to a sofa or toilet, or push yourself up a ramp or over a threshold.

1.     The home should have an exterior ramp or “zero entry” way of entering—no stairs

2.     There should be a “curb cut” from the street level to the sidewalk (either the driveway, or have the City modify a 5’ wide piece along the boulevard, if necessary.

3.     There should be two peepholes on exterior doors—one at 3’4” and another at 5’ for extra safety.

4.     Consider an alarm system or personal “health panic alarm” in the event that there is an intruder or a fall.

5.     There should be a 5’ or greater space near a primary entry door, so that a ramp can be built. It should be a 5% incline or less (in other words, the height doesn’t rise more than 12” for every 12’ of length. At the top of the ramp, there needs to be a minimum of 2’ on the side of the door nearest the lock.

6.     Ideally, all doors will be 3’ wide—2’8” is “doable”, but you will likely find a lot of scuff marks from your or your guest trying to maneuver a wheelchair in such a tight space.

7.     There should be a full bathroom and at least one bedroom on the main level—no steps to climb.

8.     Build or remodel hallways so they are at least 4’ wide to allow two people to pass one another, or a walker or wheelchair to be centered without crowding.

9.     Make sure all ramps, the garage, kitchen, bath and at least one bedroom have an open space of at least 5’, as it takes that much room for a wheelchair to pivot or make a U-turn.

10.  Consider vinyl or tile flooring—it is much more forgiving when using a wheelchair, and also much easier for the person to push themselves around. If you must use carpet, select the lowest, most dense pile available. A person in a manual wheelchair on plush padded carpet is the equivalent of a person walking on a sandy beach—each movement takes twice the effort!

11.  Try not to have any raised thresholds in doorways. For exterior doors, make the “bevel” part as shallow and wide of a transition as possible. Simply going over the “hump” is enough to throw someone from a wheelchair.

12.  Put cabinetry storage at heights that are accessible heights for everyone—place frequently used items at standing chest height or below. This includes varying closet rod heights between 42” and 6’ from the floor.

13.  Make sure that a seated person can easily see out of all windows.

14.  In homes with stairs, avoid open risers at all cost. Treads should be 1’ deep if at all possible (some people who are mobility impaired “scoot” up and down stairs, rather than walking and risking a fall). Exterior stairs should have a solid railing and risers that are 4” or less—particularly in places that get snow.

15.  There should be at least one desk height (29”-30”) countertop that is 3’ or wider in the kitchen (e.g. a computer desktop) and the bathroom or dressing area.

16.  While people are tempted to place all smoke detectors in strategic areas (hallways, bedrooms, kitchens) on the ceiling, some should be placed 40” from the floor.

17.  Mount kitchen and bedroom fire extinguishers 40” from the floor.

18.  Depending on the resident’s needs, they may need to flash as well as being audible.

19.  Buy slip resistant, skid resistant flooring. Even very dense, low-pile carpeting is difficult for a person in a wheelchair or one who uses a walker to maneuver.

20.  Install all thermostats and wall switches 40” to 48” from the floor.

21.  Consider installing jacks for landline phones in strategic areas (yes, even in 2018), as emergency service providers and security systems like to have them for households as a back-up. Even if a phone line is not active, so long as a phone is plugged in, someone may dial 911 in an emergency. Also, if someone is alone and a cell phone is in an unreachable spot, missing, or has a dead battery, the person will know the location of the landline, and can hopefully reach it.

22.  Extend stair handrails at a minimum to one side, and ideally, to both sides of the stairs.

23.  Place handrail extensions 18” out at the top and bottom of the railings, so that users can maintain a grip on approach to the area.

24.  Use Velcro to mount flash lights inside of a closet or behind a door or other convenient area on each level of the home.

25.  Use nightlights, “disguised” vents with lights, or LEDs on the edge of the walls nearest to stair treads (make sure edges/nosing is smooth). Rig it so that the low voltage lighting cannot be turned off.

This offers the best in convenient, yet beautiful life cycle housing. While many of these pointers may not be at the top of a person’s list at the time of building or remodeling, they should be. Many of the safety tips hold just as true for a parent carrying an infant, as they do for a senior with mobility concerns. Making many of the noted simple adaptations are cost-effective, and can increase a home’s value if done properly and with quality materials.

A home that seemed to be barrier-free can suddenly turn into a hazard for someone who becomes mobility-impaired due to a birth defect, illness or accident. Some of the most critical financial investments in creating or renovating a home to make it adaptable to a variety of health needs are creating a safe environment in the kitchen, bedroom and bathroom.

The need for accessible and flexible homes has increased dramatically, and is expected to grow exponentially as aging parents opt to age in place in their community of choice—often near their grown children and grandchildren. Given the monthly expense of assisted living, retirement communities, senior cooperatives or co-ops, or advanced care in nursing homes and hospice, staying in one’s home as long as possible is likely a wise financial decision.

As I noted earlier in this blog, it’s easy to build or modify a home that is appealing to able-bodied and disabled individuals AND make the spaces adaptable, so that anyone can easily function and live in the home. Many of the guidelines in this blog are based on research and outcomes noted by the American National Standards Institute, Inc. What should be the focus of adaptable home design to maximize independence in the most-used areas of the home?

AuthorBrett Foss