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9 tips for creating a home that is safe for aging in place

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2/6/2023 Kristin Luna
© Aldo Crusher/ Illustration for The Washington Post

After my father had a debilitating stroke when he was 64, my mom, sister and I found ourselves scrambling to adapt my parents’ home to his new needs. We removed any obstructions in the main walking paths and added an adaptive seating device to reduce the fall potential when he’d get up and down from his perch in front of the TV.

It could have been worse, though. Thankfully, the house was built for my grandparents in 2007 with an eye toward aging in place. It already had handrails in the entryway and primary suite, as well as zero-threshold showers with a bench and nonslip flooring, among other safety features. We were grateful that those upgrades were already there, but in hindsight, we could have been better prepared.

It’s never too early to start thinking about how your home can adapt to meet your changing needs over time, as well as what modifications might be required to make it safer, easier to use and more accessible, says Melissa Birdsong, an interior designer and the board chairwoman of Raleigh Village East, a nonprofit organization focused on helping people age in place.

“Plan it, do it and enjoy the benefits of a home that is easier to use now,” says Birdsong, 73. “And remember that you can make these changes and still maintain the style of your home. A safe home will increase its value and be more comfortable and more accessible for you, for other seniors who visit you, and for family members of all ages.”

We asked Birdsong and geriatrician Rosanne Leipzig what changes they would recommend for making a home safe for aging in place, without sacrificing style. Here are their suggestions.

Incorporate a zero-threshold entry

Zero-threshold entries — which have no steps — streamline the look of a space and minimize the risk of injury. Birdsong recommends every home have at least one zero-threshold entry. “For those homes without one,” she says, “a ramp to an entry may be needed down the road for wheelchair access.”

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Widen doorways

Wider doorways aren’t just a way to shoehorn new furniture into your home. They also provide better access, should a member of your household find themselves using a walker or wheelchair. Your doorways should be at least 34 inches wide; 36 inches is even better.

“Wheelchairs vary from 25 to 36 inches wide, so doorways need to be wider to accommodate them. Three feet is the suggested width,” says Leipzig, professor of geriatrics and palliative medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Wider hallways also will ease your burden down the road.

Pick low-maintenance flooring

Comfort and maintenance should be top of mind when choosing flooring. “As you age, your gait and your ability to pick up your feet changes, and many people have arthritis or other conditions that affect the way they walk,” Birdsong says.

Carpet may be soft, but it’s harder to keep clean; a high-gloss hardwood, though, could be a slipping hazard. If you prefer carpet, pick a tight pile installed over a firm, thin padding that will support walking. If hardwood is your style, choose a material with a lot of texture to cut down on slipping. Area rugs should have thin, firm pads with a nonskid back, Birdsong says, and carpet tape securing corners and edges to the floor.

Brighter is better

A healthy 60-year-old needs about twice as much light to read as a 20-year-old, according to Leipzig; an 80-year-old needs three times more. Natural light also helps lift your mood and combat depression. Ideally, your space will have ample windows, skylights and glass doors to bring sunlight into sitting areas. But if it doesn’t, a fresh coat of paint can help. Darker colors absorb light, making it more difficult to see as sunlight wanes throughout the day. Lighter colors naturally reflect light to create a brighter space.

Birdsong also likes to create layers of light by combining overhead or ambient lighting with task and accent lighting.

“Adding lamps in various places around the room not only creates better ambiance but also provides light where it’s needed for reading, sewing or just conversation,” she says.

And stick with long-lasting LED lights, which can help decrease the need to use a ladder to swap out bulbs, another safety hazard.

Contrast is your friend

“Color and contrast perception decreases [as you age], making it harder to differentiate between colors or distinguish the outlines of objects,” says Leipzig, author of “Honest Aging: An Insider’s Guide to the Second Half of Life.” “Your eyes are more sensitive to glare, and it takes longer to adapt to sunlight as well as darkness.”

So skip the all-white kitchens or bathrooms, which don’t offer any visual demarcations. Instead, choose a countertop color or material that dramatically differs from your floors. If investing in new counters is cost-prohibitive, you can always paint existing ones.

The same goes for furniture that is the same color as the flooring, Birdsong says. Make sure the color of handrails contrasts with the walls, Leipzig says, to make them easier to see.

Incorporate voice-activated technology

Yes, technology is constantly changing, but there are a few features that Leipzig says are worth including. Make sure you have remote controls for lighting and ceiling fans, she says, and add a video doorbell, so you can see who’s there without getting up. A thermostat you can control by voice or app is another good option, she says.

Or, Leipzig says, go with a product with access to a virtual assistant, which can allow you to control many things in your home (door locks, lights, etc.) from one device.

Opt for drawers over cabinets

If you’re remodeling a kitchen or bathroom, consider installing drawers rather than cabinet doors and pullouts. They are easier to use, Birdsong says, and they allow you to better see the contents. Drawer-pull handles are also easier for aging hands to grasp than cabinet doorknobs. (Side-by-side or French-door-style refrigerators also provide better visibility of contents than top/bottom models.)

Make switches easier on hands (and eyes)

A rocker light switch — a seesaw-like device you can use with your palm or elbow — can be easier to use than a traditional toggle switch. Additionally, consider installing light switches and electrical outlets in a darker color, for greater contrast against light-colored walls. For doors, lever handles are easier to manipulate than doorknobs, Leipzig says, “especially if your hands are full or if you have arthritis.”

Consider outlet and switch height

You don’t have to be in your senior years to sympathize with the pain of leaning over to plug in electronics. But your likelihood of falling when you do increases as you age. One remedy? Adjust the outlet heights. Standard outlet placement is 12 inches above the floor, but the Fair Housing Act Design Manual, which provides guidance to builders in meeting accessibility requirements, recommends placing them between 15 and 48 inches off the ground. (Just be careful that cords don’t create tripping hazards.) Conversely, Leipzig says, it’s often worth placing light switches lower, so they are reachable from a wheelchair.

Kristin Luna is a freelance writer in Tennessee.


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