By Katie Beecher
If you’re nearing retirement age, you’re most likely thinking about where you’re going to live as an older adult. A 2018 AARP survey found that nearly 80% of Americans ages 50 and older want to age in place, which means staying in their home or community rather than transitioning to a senior living community.
While aging in place allows you to stay in the comfort of your home and maintain your independence, keep in mind that your needs change as you get older. If you’ve decided that aging in place is right for you, consider how you can modify your home to age with you.
Renovating a home depends on your personal preferences, but you can think about some design considerations. We spoke with vice president and principal architect Rebecca (Becky) Kent from Levin/Brown Architects and Kevin Taylor of Taylor Made Custom Contracting, who shared their tips for enhancing your home when you’re aging in place.
Getting in, out, and around the house
Before making any physical modifications, homeowners should consult with professionals. Taylor says he’s worked with physical therapists who come to a house to learn more about a client’s limitations so that his firm can get precise measurements for entrances, ramps, and grab bars.
Taylor and his team typically start with ways to get in, out, and around the house first. These approaches include taking out steps so that residents can walk directly into their homes or adding a ramp for people who use wheelchairs or walkers for mobility. Carpeting can hinder wheelchair mobility and be a tripping hazard. Taylor suggests installing hardwood or vinyl flooring instead.
Residents will also often add stair lifts in multiple-story homes or install an elevator. “Elevators are maybe more of a residential luxury, but it’s about investing in your home and customizing it to meet your future needs. I’ve seen people in their 40s and (older) put in an elevator,” says Kent.
Both Taylor and Kent agree that homeowners should consider widening doorways to accommodate wheelchairs and walkers, even if they’re not currently using any. Kent explains that it’s best to think ahead and prepare the house now. Widen doorways, place laundry facilities on the first floor so that you don’t have to worry about going up and down stairs to do laundry, and reinforce walls so that when you need to add grab bars to the bathroom, for example, the walls are prepared for your needs.
One of Kent’s primary concerns is rethinking your home’s layout and prioritizing first-floor accessibility.
She explains that people often aim to preemptively move their bedroom to the first floor, whether this decision means converting a downstairs room
or building an addition to a house.
“An accessible bathroom is usually part of that. While it doesn’t necessarily need to have grab bars yet, we usually make it large enough to easily accommodate a wheelchair or a walker,”
When it comes to bathrooms, a common improvement is raising the height of toilets and sinks for easier access, lowering the framing of a bathtub, or installing a zero-clearance shower with a bench to avoid tripping hazards.
“We can take out the threshold or put in a rubber strip that collapses when you step on it or when a wheelchair runs over it. You can also put in a counter next to the tub so that you can sit down and pull your legs in without having to worry about stepping over anything,” says Taylor.
People with arthritis may want to install single-handle faucets in the bathrooms and kitchen so that they don’t have to worry about flipping or turning a knob. Taylor recommends using handles for everything, whether it’s a sink, door, or cabinet so that you don’t have to grab anything and can easily open jars or bottles with one hand.
Kitchens are another room in the house to consider for renovations. Taylor says that his team mainly focuses on areas such as placing handles on cabinets, installing outlets across the countertop, and putting motion lighting underneath cabinets so that residents can see better.
Some people, especially those in wheelchairs, choose to completely customize their kitchens. This customization can mean measuring height and arm length and lowering cabinets and
counters so that all levels and reaches are easily accessible.
In the age of smart technology, people can now use voice control or their phones to access and secure their homes. Taylor and Kent have worked with systems that include Ring doorbell cameras, Echo and Alexa devices, Nest thermostats, intercoms, and the Lutron, HomeWorks, and Caseta apps.
“There are apps that let you turn off the gas and water or check on your home through cameras. You can go down to Florida and still have access to your house through your phone,”
“Some people aren’t comfortable with smart technology. Some go as basic as Alexa, and other houses are completely wired. We’ve worked with companies like Gramophone and Starr Systems Design to help navigate through those technologies and find out what people want to achieve in their homes,” says Kent.
Taylor also encourages older individuals to use a keypad entry system for at least one door of the house. In the event of an accident, emergency services can easily get into the home without having to smash down a door.
Think about installing motion-sensored LED lights in and out of the house to reduce tripping hazards and limit the use of light bulbs. “Until last year, I had no idea how big of a deal it was for older people to change a light bulb, but it can be scary to get up on a stepladder. These ladders often don’t have handles,” says Taylor.
In recent years, both Kent and Taylor are seeing more and more younger people take aging-in-place into account when buying or renovating their houses.
“It used to be that older people would start renovating because they were scared of falling in the house, but now younger people who have seen the position that their parents or grandparents were in are preemptively thinking about the future of their homes,” says Taylor.
First-floor master bedrooms and offices have become increasingly popular, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Kent adds, “Having a home office isn’t new, but a lot of people didn’t have a
dedicated working space in their house when we got thrown into this pandemic. With people working from home, now they want to have an office on the first floor instead of in the basement.”
Taylor’s firm will usually build an addition to a house for semiretired clients who have to work but either don’t have an office or have one in the basement only.
“They typically want it on the first floor with an entrance and exit in case they have to see people or clients. Some are even interested in a Zoom background right now for when they have meetings,” says Taylor.
Aging in place requires advanced planning so that a home adapts and changes just as people adapt and change. “It’s all about having forethought now so that you don’t have to worry about modifications later,” says Kent.
Whether you’re ready to start renovating or are interested in making smaller modifications to prepare to age in place, take time, talk to experts and determine what will be best for you and your home.