As a designer, I aspire for functional forever homes-where you live the life you dream about and are able to keep doing so into old age. I want you to have that home where your kids grew up in and where your grandkids can visit you. This is a principle in my pursuit of a permaculture home, but here I will focus purely on how this principle can be applied by designing/renovating for aging in place.
If we are seeking to stay in this memory rich home, what considerations would you add to your home if you planned on growing old in it? How would you be able to function in your current home when you are old and alone? Or would your spouse have a difficult time in the home when you are gone and they are old and by themselves? What systems can you put into place so that your loved ones or you can stay in your home, independently, amidst all the memories you built together-instead of needing to be relocated to some type of facility?
There are design considerations specific to homes for use by seniors. One way we refer to this is the design concept of aging in place. The goal is to live independently in your own home regardless of your age, income and ability level. Your needs will change, and your home should be able to accommodate you when that time comes. These adjustments will allow you to function effectively in your home surrounded by everything familiar and beloved to you, and you will be surprised how things just seem to work out.
Here are some concerns and how we can design around them so you can age in place in your forever home.
To accommodate limited mobility, a lot of factors can be improved on in a typical house. These all have to do with making the home easier to navigate thru safely and comfortably. Imagine potentially needing-even for a short time-to access the entire home on a walker, a knee scooter or a wheelchair. This means adequate clear paths through the home with extra room to maneuver and free of door thresholds or steps. Imagine your current home, some spaces will jump at you with this problem right away. Maybe you have a porch that walks up a few steps. Maybe your pantry door would be too narrow to get into.
To make this work, ramps may be needed where you have to deal with steps/stairs. If you think you have no space for it, consider that designers are adept at finding ways to fit in a ramp so don’t shut out this idea right away. Ramps for wheelchairs need to have a slope not steeper than 1 foot of rise for every 12 feet of run. These need to have a clear width of 36″ measured between handrails if on each side of the ramp. You will need to have a clear landing space at the top and bottom of the ramp to allow for a wheelchair to maneuver properly.
The material for ramps can vary, but typically they are meant to be slip-resistant. Aesthetics of the ramp can be adjusted to compliment the rest of your home, be it inside or outside.
Floor finishes should be selected for slip resistance and easy maintenance. We will discuss more on slip resistance when we go into bathrooms. Impact can also be considered: it is less painful to fall onto a wood floor than it is on a tile floor, especially if the wood floor is selected properly for this concern. This is of special concern as we age and have more brittle bones. To help with this, one can consider how they select their wood floor underlayment. This not only makes the wood floor more quiet and pleasant to walk on, but absorbs impact if someone trips and falls on it.
Doors need to be wide enough and have no steps that can be a trip hazard. Trip hazards are common at the door threshold but we can modify door thresholds and keep them flush to the floor. Doors also need to open 90 degrees to the wall and be wide enough for potential wheelchair and stretcher use. These mean a minimum of 32 inches clear width. The trick here is that this is 32″ clear from one side of the door frame to the face of the door leaf that opens at 90 degrees-since the door often encroaches if measuring from door frame to door frame.
Transition spaces are what I call those spaces inbetween rooms where you might go through a door from one side on the exterior into the interior of the house. It may also just be from a corridor to a bathroom, or a landing in a flight of stairs. You will want these spaces to have room to maneuver. Established standards call for a 5 ft circle to fit in these transition spaces. There are smaller clearance requirements should a 5ft circle be difficult. We won’t go into much of this as there are varying options depending on the scenario. These all consider the approach to a door, the swing and the side of the door you come from.
When going thru these spaces even without a wheelchair, it will also be beneficial to have something that can help the person rest or transition between the rooms. A seating area at the top and bottom of a flight of stairs would be very useful. While you fumble for your keys on the porch, you might appreciate a bench to sit or a shelf to set down your packages.
I cannot say that designers pay enough attention to these transitions, but I feel these are of huge benefit.
Specific design considerations and products are available to allow easier grasping of a near unlimited range of products. Door levers are easier to use than door knobs for example. Cabinet pulls can be updated for those which are easier to grab and require less fuss. Cabinet hardware can also be updated so they require less force to pull open and to push close.
A pantry closet may be designed so that the shelves flip out so you won’t have to reach in. Your light switches can also be updated for easier to toggle.
From a reach range perspective, this becomes different when we have a wheelchair involved. The height and depth of your reach changes when you are seated in a wheelchair. This means a 54 inch height is likely more ideal, from a sitting position, for switches, shelves, appliance controls.
Grab bars are very helpful and can also come into play, particularly in very specific spaces like bathrooms which will be discussed in more detail later.
Security in the home becomes a bit more complicated. When you are older and living alone in your home-you may be targeted by criminals. You might leave your door unlocked as you keep up with things and get preoccupied. Or you may just not want that extra risk that you previously did not worry about.
There are different ways to look at this issue, but the main goal is to update the home to make it safer for you relative to your current situation . We’ll discuss a few examples and you can pick and choose which you feel apply to your situation.
Security can be improved by considering how outsiders can gain access to a home to provide work you requested. This may be a plumber coming to help clean a drain. Or a mover picking up something you sold online. In these examples you need them to gain temporary access into your home even though you may not fully be comfortable with it. Maybe you have a space set up for porch pickup that is convenient for you, or maybe you have an area in your home you can move for sale items when you have help. This could be a covered deck in your backyard where the item can wait while it is on sale, once purchased the buyer will have limited access to that deck and you can be separated safely inside. You could prep for these spaces with different strategies to benefit you.
You can also look at adding security cameras to your home. These can be private and set up for your use only, or you can set it up so that trusted family or friends get an alert on their phone if someone is detected by the camera. Ring devices are an example of this, where you can share the alerts with perhaps trusted nearby friends if you have motion in the backyard or a delivery in your front door.
Should you have a serious situation like a home invasion or a robbery, your risks will be even higher. We won’t go into much detail, but here it will be a benefit to having good quality doors and locks in the home and good quality door and locks in your bedroom. This adds a layer of protection so that if someone tries to break into your home you and your loved one would have a more secure room to shelter in.
We can add some automation in the home to make things easier. Lights can be set to motion detection in pathways and in rooms. You can have lights turned on with a timer. You could add a motion detected chime so you can hear from your kitchen if someone is coming up the driveway. You can have a bedtime setting so that with a voice command the lights turn off everywhere other than your nightstand where you can read that book.
There are a myriad devices you can get to automate your home, like vacuum and mop different areas of your home. Instapot to cook a dish at a set time. Feed your pets on a timer or let them out without you having to get out of your bed early. (Here’s a sample for your pets).
Bathrooms are a whole separate category in my opinion. There’s a lot of things that need to be considered compared to other spaces and compared to what activities are involved. A bathroom has risks to tripping or losing balance while changing clothes, stepping in and out of a wet surface. Transitioning to a toilet from a wheelchair and standing back up.
There are a number of established solutions that we can look to using for a bathroom.
We review our door and floor, ensuring we don’t have tripping and slipping hazards. The door threshold should be flush on both sides of the door as it transitions from bathroom tile to bedroom carpet flooring.
In the bathroom, tile selection is critical as some materials are more slippery than others. Industry standards will let you look at what is called Dynamic Coefficient of Friction. This is a rating system that tells you how slip resistant a tile is. You will want to look at something above 0.42 DCOF, higher is better in this category.
Consider having a secondary floor drain to deal with water beyond the shower/tub. This may be a specialized application and will add cost to a project, but the benefits of being able to keep your bathroom floor dry are obvious. Imagine needing to step out of the shower to get a towel and dripping all over the floor-and then realize you don’t need to worry since it will drain on it’s own anyway. You don’t have to clean it up. You also reduce the chance of ever slipping on the floor later because the floor will drain and dry even if you skip mopping it up.
Bathrooms benefit from having some form of communication device. Should you trip and need assistance, it may be difficult to get help. Yelling for help from a bathroom, a room with few windows and poor acoustics, people are likely to not hear you outside of the home. There are tech solutions to this, one could use a personal medical alert system, a phone or a device like Alexa nearby where one can voice command for assistance.
To help getting around in a bathroom, you should have grab bars located for bath tub and toilet access. There are a lot of options on how these are configured, but the main goal is to provide support in and out of a bath tub or shower, or from a wheel chair to a toilet. Below is an image of grab bar configurations for bathroom use.
Example of grab bar configuration for tub use, based on the Federal Housing Authority guidelines Chapter 6. (Not required for private residences but useful as a reference.)
It is important to note that other than their placement, grab bars require proper anchorage to the wall. You would not want to rely on a grab bar to support you and then have it rip from the wall at the worse time. You will want them to be screwed thru to the wood studs of your wall or some wood blocking added for that particular purpose.
These grab bar configurations can vary quite a bit depending on how the bathroom is laid out. These images are just an example. Here is a link to a resource that covers grab bars in bathrooms from the Federal Housing Authority just to show the multitude of configurations that may come up. This may be too much so don’t stress reading it. Just know that there is quite a lot of established standards for this issue.
Your sink and mirror will need to work with you if you are using a wheelchair. This typically means the bottom of the mirror would be at a max height of 40 inches from the floor. The sink will need knee space below it should a wheelchair be used and the top of the sink should be at a max height of 34 inches from the floor.
SHOWER OR TUB SEATING
We may want the option to sit down in the shower or tub. We have bath tubs today that are built to sit in instead of lay down in-these remove the hurdle of stepping over the tub but also allows one to sit at a higher, more comfortable height. We also have regular tubs with spaces designed for seating. We can also purchase off the shelf shower or tub seats.
Shower valves can also be located so that you don’t have to reach over the tub/shower to turn them on. These can simply be moved closer to the edge of the tub/shower so you can reach them standing up or seated on a wheelchair.
Kitchens are almost as complicated as bathrooms, but since we already discussed bathrooms this will be simpler since the principles and tactics are repeated.
Same with the bathroom, your sinks will benefit from having the ability to provide knee space and a lower height. Should you have use of a wheelchair these would be of benefit. The cabinetry below the sink can be made so that it can be removed later on when you need to.
You will want some of your kitchen cabinets to be within your reach if you are using a wheelchair or think you may need to use one. This means meeting recommended reach ranges for the most of them- which is 54 inches from the floor, having the rarely used items located beyond. My opinion on this, I would prefer to have even the rarely used items within reach.
Switches, outlets, your sink faucet and location of microwaves and other devices on your counter should be within easy reach as well.
Clearances for access and to work adjacent to areas will need to be clearly allocated for. This means 40 inches for a path and a 5 ft circle to turn around in, if a wheelchair is needed. Adjacent to an area, this is a 30inch wide and 48 inch long space allocated for a potential wheelchair space while using a stove or fridge or other similar work.
Some of these considerations are easy modifications to your home today. These can be motion sensors, ramps or door levers, a bench to rest at. Others need more consideration and commitment for long term planning: i.e. designing a future proof kitchen that will accommodate you should you or your loved one need to use a wheelchair years later.
The options will vary and you can combine them in multiple ways. Perhaps, given your knowledge of your current health and family history you can anticipate what needs are more likely. You can also anticipate these remodel considerations based on what you think will benefit your lifestyle now and for long term.
If you like to go out with your dog in the morning on the porch or if you frequently go out to drive to your church-these are all lifestyle patterns we can design into your home and make sure you can continue to enjoy doing them. The goal is to prepare your home now so that you can live the way you want to in the same home for as long as you choose.
My goal at Alt-Ark is to Make Homes More Permaculture, to help you build that permaculture house on the homestead.