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Ways to make your home more senior-accessible

There are plenty of small, relatively inexpensive changes you can make now to make your home easier to live in, not just for you but for everyone, regardless of age, size or ability.

January 30, 2011|By Lew Sichelman

Reporting from Orlando, Fla. — Turned off by housing design that focuses on disabilities and the problems that come from aging?

Builders, architects and product makers meeting at the big International Builders Show here this month say they have gotten the message loud and clear and are now emphasizing hardly noticeable high-tech and user-friendly style and comfort in their latest designs.

That's good news for people in the market for new homes that will still accommodate their physical needs as their abilities change. But what about the millions of people who want to age gracefully in their present abodes?

New AARP research found that just like past generations, 8 of 10 baby boomers, the first of whom began turning 65 on Jan. 1, are happy right where they are and don't want to move. Yet another AARP study a few years back found that the classic suburban homes where boomers tend to live are not terribly conducive to aging in place.

Fortunately, boomers are right at the life stage when owners tend to remodel their homes. And with a little foresight, the rehab they undertake when Junior moves out or Dad retires can incorporate important universal-design features that will accommodate their needs now and later in life. Perhaps even late in life.

"In familiar stereotypes about aging, everyone retired happily to the Sun Belt and lived an active and very social life until they went into a nursing home," says AARP spokeswoman Nancy Thompson. "The first part of the stereotype was never true, and the last part doesn't have to be."

Better yet, you don't have to move walls to accomplish the task. There are plenty of small, relatively inexpensive changes you can make now to make your place easier to live in, not just for you but for everyone, regardless of age, size or ability.

In fact, universal design isn't just about older people with chronic conditions, says Sharon Dworkin-Bell, senior vice president of 50-plus housing at the National Assn. of Home Builders. "It is for everybody and all circumstances, whether you are pushing a wheelchair or a stroller."

With that in mind, let's take a quick walk around the typical house and see what can be done to make it more user-friendly without breaking the bank:

• Entries. Every house should have at least one no-step pathway leading in and out. So look around to see where that can be accomplished most effectively. Often, you can build a ramp at the side door that is less obtrusive and less expensive than one at the front.

A 36-inch-wide door is ideal, but that often requires major remodeling. So if that is out of the question, at least consider switching to a zero threshold, adding brighter lights inside and out, making the walk slip-resistant and installing a lever-style handle. All of these improve safety, add convenience and boost livability for everyone, but they are especially important as we age because we don't walk as well, our vision wanes and we have trouble grasping things.

While you're at it, build a shelf near the entry where you can place packages while opening and closing the door, switch to a lighted doorbell, consider easy-open or keyless locks, light up your house numbers and paint the numbers on your curb for the sake of emergency responders.

• Stairs. If possible, you'll also want to eliminate open, see-through stair risers and add deeper treads that accommodate your entire foot to prevent tripping. While you're at it, also consider widening the stairway to a full 4 feet to accommodate a future chairlift.

If that's too big a deal, at least make sure you have handrails on both sides of the steps, inside and out.

Another trick: Make the front edge of the steps a contrasting color to provide visual orientation. You can buy inexpensive adhesive strips, use two different kinds of wood or finish the edge in a different stain. "It doesn't have to be ugly," AARP's Thompson said.

• Electrical. In a perfect world, light switches would be 42 inches off the floor and electrical outlets would be 18 inches from the floor. But if that's too expensive, at least switch to easy-touch, rocker-style switches, even if only at the top and bottom of the stairs.

• Living areas. The same principles apply here and everywhere else in the house: wide doors and halls, lower switches and higher outlets, lever handles and a flood of lighting. But also consider extra outlets to accommodate future technology or medical equipment. And buy at least one comfortable chair with a seat at least 18 inches off the ground.

Also, take another look at that dining room you hardly ever use with an eye toward converting it into a first-floor bedroom if the need ever arises.

• Kitchen. Full-blown makeovers are expensive, but if you are considering a kitchen remodel, do so with universal design in mind.

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