As the Baby Boomer generation gracefully transitions into their golden years, there is a pressing need to adapt our living spaces to cater to their evolving needs. Add to that the advancements in healthcare and technology that are helping people live longer, there is a surge in the elderly population that will continue to grow.
According to the World Health Organization, the global population of people aged 60 years and older is expected to double by 2050, reaching 2.1 billion. This unprecedented shift necessitates a reevaluation of how we design and structure our homes. In this paradigm shift, preparing homes for seniors who want to age in place becomes an imperative step towards ensuring a comfortable and dignified quality of life, while also easing strain on the limited available space in extremely expensive, high-quality assisted living facilities.
Aging in place also allows seniors to maintain their independence, emotional well-being, and connections to their communities. By creating an environment that supports their evolving physical and cognitive needs, we empower them to lead fulfilling lives in the comfort of their own homes. It’s also important to remember that you do not need to sacrifice aesthetic beauty for functionality. All aging-in-place modifications can be successfully implemented while keeping the home looking like a home, rather than a wing of a hospital.
Following are some of the key considerations when modifying a home to meet the needs of aging seniors or when building an in-law apartment that will eventually be the home of your elderly parents.
Accessibility and Mobility
Ramps and Lifts: Installing ramps and lifts ensures that seniors can navigate their homes safely, even if mobility is compromised. If ramps and lifts aren't yet needed, it’s important to think about creating accommodations for them in the future.
Stairs, Wider Doorways and Hallways: Ample space allows for easy maneuverability, especially for those using mobility aids. Thresholds should be eliminated as they can become trip hazards as mobility suffers and people start to shuffle their feet. In some cases changing door knobs to levers will make opening easier for people with gripping issues. This also includes expanding the tread depth of stairs, which can be narrow and difficult to maneuver, particularly in older homes. Also be sure to use contrasting colors for stair and landing finishes to make them easily distinguishable for safer navigation. For the steps leading into the home, consider making them deep enough to accommodate a walker.
Stairlifts or Elevators: These are crucial for multi-level homes, ensuring access to all areas without the risk of falls. But in the case of a stair lift, they can be installed once it’s needed and is not an invasive install.
First Floor Living: If it’s a multi-level home, ensure all needs can be met on the first floor such as a bedroom, shower and washer and dryer. This will eliminate the need to go up and down stairs and leave the second floor for guests and other visitors.
Grab Bars and Handrails and Benches: These provide essential support in bathrooms, reducing the risk of slips and falls. It’s important to keep in mind that even if you don’t need the bars and handrails now, you may need them in the future, so if you are having work done to those spaces now, consider having the builder install the appropriate blocking that will allow for easy modifications in the future.
Walk-In Showers or Bathtubs: These eliminate the need to step over high thresholds, enhancing safety and ease of use. Remember to maintain at least one bathroom (and accompanying shower) that is sized to accommodate wheelchair access.
Non-Slip Flooring: Choosing slip-resistant flooring materials minimizes accidents.
Contrasting Colors: Choose contrasting colors/tones for countertops and floors to make it easier to identify edges and corners.
Adjustable Countertops: These accommodate various heights and abilities, ensuring comfortable food preparation. Even having a small 3-4 foot portion of the counter being able to be adjusted could make the difference of an individual being able to continue to make meals themselves.
Accessible and Safer Appliances: Installing appliances at a convenient height reduces strain on the back and limbs, such as wall ovens and drawer microwaves. Consider purchasing an induction stove which only heats up when the pan or pot is on the stove, reducing the risk of accidents and fires.
Easy-to-Reach Storage: Lowering shelves and cabinets makes items more accessible.
Bedroom and Living Spaces
Ergonomic Furniture: Opt for chairs and beds with proper support and height to aid in sitting and standing.
Clear Pathways: Eliminate furniture clutter and ensure that pathways are clear to prevent tripping hazards, including removing thresholds from doorways to provide a smooth transition from room to room.
Proper Lighting: Well-lit spaces reduce the risk of falls, especially during nighttime.
Guest Rooms: If you have the necessary space, designate an area that could be used by a live-in nurse or assistant when and if one is needed in later years.
Smart Home Solutions: From voice-activated controls to emergency alert systems, technology can greatly enhance safety and convenience.
Medical Alert Systems: These provide immediate assistance in case of emergencies.
The Economic and Emotional Benefits
Apart from the obvious health and safety advantages, retrofitting homes for seniors offers economic benefits. Aging in place reduces the burden on healthcare systems, as it often leads to fewer hospitalizations and nursing home admissions.
Additionally, the emotional benefits cannot be understated. Familiar surroundings, a sense of autonomy, and the continued connection to their community contribute to a higher quality of life for seniors.
As the elderly population continues to grow, the need to adapt our homes is clear. This shift will require a collective effort from homeowners, builders, designers, and communities alike. By embracing this change, we pave the way for a more inclusive and compassionate society, one that recognizes the invaluable contributions and wisdom of our seniors. Together, we can create environments that not only support aging in place but also celebrate it.
Remember a well laid plan will allow you to make modifications as they become needed while limiting the extent of additional construction.