Let’s say your spouse’s elderly mother is moving in with you. What kinds of accommodations should you make for her?

The answer is the same whether you plan to age in your own home or simply want to add features to make your property safer and more accessible for others.

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In the United States, we are slowly becoming accustomed to “universal design,” a term coined by the late Ronald L. Mace (1941-1998), a fellow of the American Institute of Architects. It refers to designing buildings, exterior spaces and products that are usable by all people to the greatest extent possible. Think of the ramps into public buildings, the wide restroom doors at the gym, power lifts on Metro buses.

According to an article that appears online on Art Beyond Sight, universal design is not a design style, but an orientation to design that is inspired by this thinking:

  • Disability is not a special condition of a few.
  • It is ordinary and affects most of us for some part of our lives.
  • If a design works well for people with disabilities, it works better for everyone.
  • Usability and aesthetics are mutually compatible.

Practical changes to your home to make it more accessible don’t have to be klutzy or terribly expensive, especially when compared to the cost to reside at an assisted living facility. Any interior design style you like can be accommodated.

The most obvious initial change centers on making everything the same level. That means getting rid of raised thresholds or bumpy transitions from carpet to hardwood. Outdoors, if you have a change in grade, plan on building a ramp at one entrance into your home, probably from the garage.

Widen hallways and doorways so that they can accommodate a wheelchair or walker. There’s plenty of good information online about minimum/maximum widths and other considerations here, but, depending on the size of the wheelchair, doorways should be at least 32 inches wide. Hallways require 36 inches. Don’t forget to factor in the space it takes to turn a corner after entering a room.

If you have older folks living in your home – or perhaps you are the older folks – plan to have a full bathroom on every floor of the residence, including the main level. Within the bathroom, install bar grips (if needed) in the bathtub/shower and next to the toilet. You might not need curbless showers or tubs with doors (yet), but a built-in shower bench, hand-held shower head and overhead heater are practical ideas everyone will find useful and a little bit luxurious.

If someone is in a wheelchair, you will want to install a lower wall-mount bathroom sink without any cabinetry underneath so that the user can pull up close to the tap and mirror.

Residential elevators are becoming more common and affordable, but much depends on a home’s floorplan and construction. (We’d be happy to recommend some local elevator companies, if you want to get a bid for installation.)

In the kitchen, consider installing a microwave at a lower cabinet level rather than over the stove. If someone has a hard time climbing up onto a breakfast barstool, lower the breakfast bar/prep area on a “peninsula” that can accommodate a wheelchair or regular chairs. Side-by-side refrigerators are more accessible than those with a freezer drawer on the bottom. Did you know that you can buy an oven with side-swing doors rather than the drop-down doors? Here’s a look at five models.

A few more tips:

  • Lever-style doorhandles are easier to grasp and use than round doorhandles.
  • Automate what you can, including lights, garage doors, door locks, security system and blinds. Mobile apps today make this all very doable.
  • Non-slip flooring is essential, especially in areas that might get wet, such as near the back door or in the bathroom.
  • Small area throw rugs should be removed or relocated.

For a good overview of making your house more comfortable for aging in place or folks with disabilities, see Creating a Forever Home: Aging in Place in the Fall 2021 edition of This Old House Magazine. It has many thoughtful suggestions.

One more note: There are builders and contractors who specialize in the kind of renovations briefly discussed in this article. Learn more about Certified Aging-in-Place Specialists (CAPS) here.