5 Tips for an Age in Place Home
Aging in place is a priority for most people – most people want live in their homes as they age. Unfortunately, a house is indifferent to this desire. While a person’s needs and abilities change over time, a house stays the same, with its grandest features – the soaring staircase, the deep soaking tub – redefined as hazards.
Perhaps the one of the largest hurdles to staying put may be people’s reluctance to remodel their homes specifically to enable them to “age in place.” A sense of style is ageless, and people are loath to sacrifice aesthetics even for increased access and maneuverability.
“People resist the idea of growing older anyway, but the biggest obstacle is the misconception that if they make alterations, it’s going to look institutional,” says interior designer and certified aging-in-place specialist Carolyn Deardorff, Design Adventures, Brighton, Colorado.
For bathroom retrofits in particular, “Everything they’ve been exposed to is downright ugly,” she says.
But manufacturers and remodelers have gotten with the program, marrying safety and style. A 2011 National Association of Home Builders survey of professional remodelers found that two-thirds of them had worked with homeowners to make their houses accommodate their aging bodies. “It’s a big market, and we expect remodelers will get even more involved,” says Steve Melman, NAHB’s director of economic services.
As with any remodeling project, the aesthetics are just as important as the utility, Melman says: “You have to do it with quality design. You don’t want it to look like an assisted-living facility.”
The shower is usually the centerpiece of a bathroom remodel. Curbless or walk-in showers allow for entry without stepping over a ledge. “A frameless shower enclosure is the best solution when you’re trying to avoid obstacles. They don’t have anything you can catch your toe on,” Deardorff says.
To keep water safely inside the shower, install a door sweep and a trench drain, she recommends. Inside the shower and on the floors, two-inch-square tiles are best for slip resistance because they have more grout joints, says certified aging-in-place specialist Joseph Irons, Irons Brothers Construction, Shoreline, Wash.
For those that need or prefer to sit while bathing, “Built-in benches are safer than the ones that fold down,” Deardorff says, and are arguably more attractive.
To avoid reaching, leaning or bending place wall niches for soap and shampoo near the bench and higher up, for standing bathers. "Falls are a big problem as we get older,” Deardorff says. Switches and outlets should also be positioned with this in mind.
An adjustable handheld shower spray that slides on a wall-mounted rod for maximum flexibility can accommodate sitting and standing bathers.
For those who prefer soaking to showering, some manufacturers offer walk-in tubs with watertight doors and hydrotherapy features.
“Usually when you install them, you need to upgrade the water heater because they take so much water to fill,” says certified aging-in-place specialist Tim Swafford, owner of the Chattanooga, Tenn.-based home building and remodeling company Independent Living of Tennessee.
Stylish, taller toilets are offered now, eliminating the need for institutional-looking toilet-seat extenders.
Grab bars these days are “downright gorgeous,” Deardorff says, “with elegant curves and great colors and finishes” that coordinate with bathroom fixtures or tiles. Companies like Moen and GreatGrabz have elevated the grab bar to an art form, taking inspiration from various architectural styles and using classic as well as unconventional materials, such as clear acrylic.
Rocker switches, lever door handles, C-shaped cabinet and drawer pulls, and motion-sensing lighting and faucets are all easier on arthritic hands. “Get rid of every knob,” Deardorff says, since they are harder to grasp and twist.
It takes planning, but aging in place can be done in style. And an earlier start means fewer decisions and disruptions down the line.