Design to age in place

A few years ago my wife and I took a trip to Canada. My wife had never been. (Her mother confided in me that my wife was conceived in Thunder Bay. When I commented to my wife about it she was surprised- she’d never heard the story. But that is a post for another time. (Or maybe a memoir).

Up in Thunder Bay we stayed at a chain hotel. The concierge apologized that the only room available was one that featured “universal design.” In the states we call this ADA compliant. What could we do? It was 7 o’clock at night, we’d been driving for hours and we were in a foreign country. We took it.

Here’s the thing: it was utterly comfortable. The doors were wider, the counters a bit lower, and the shower was a walk-in. We had space to move around and for once neither of us bumped our knees on a sharp edge on a nocturnal bathroom journey.

Why aging in place is attractive

What does this have to do with architecture? I’m glad you asked. Many of us over 60 want to “age in place.” We like our community, we know the neighborhood, we feel secure in our homes. We also do not want to pay thousands of dollars a month for an assisted living apartment. Maybe the thought of moving into a complex that starts with independent living with a loved one and ends with memory care with strangers scares us. I know it scares me.

As we get older it also becomes more likely that we will have knee or hip surgery. Maybe we’ll break an ankle on the ice. Maybe we want to avoid a “transitional care facility” after a surgery.

A 2021 article in Retirement Living states that 90% of people over 65 want to age in place. The article also noted five reasons for aging in place. Aging in place is:

  1. Cost-effective
  2. More comfortable
  3. Slows memory loss
  4. Conducive to maintaining your social network
  5. The best way to stay independent and have agency

As a residential architect I’ve sought out practical solutions to being able to age in place myself.

The top 5 home modifications to age in place

Of course we all have our proclivities. We all live a little differently and have things we like and do not like. But here are the five things you can do to your home to make it easier for you to recover from a surgery or illness and be able to stay longer in your own home:

  • Have wide doorways to main areas: at least three feet wide (the minimum width is 32” to meet ADA code)
  • Have lower counters and work areas set at a 30” height in main areas. This is six inches lower than the standard height. Consider installing pull-out counters. Tables can be purchased that are the right height for you,
  • Have a big main floor bathroom with a sink that is no higher than 34” from the floor and has an open space under it so that you can wheel to it, and just as our Canadian hotel room had, a roll-in shower
  • Have a main floor bedroom

Have either the front or back entrance to your home at ground level with no stairs.If there are stairs consider creating a sloped or ramp entrance, either temporary or permanent. For those with the desire and resources, starting from scratch is optimal, or adding an elevator may be feasible.The beauty of these updates is that they are flexible and utilitarian. Your main floor bath will improve the salability of your home. The lower countertops are not prohibitive for anyone to use and can actually be great for young kids and grandkids.A main floor bedroom just means there is an egress window and a closet in the room. Most bedrooms have to be 7’x 10’ by code (which is very small). The majority of the bedrooms I design are at least 12’ x 12’. This bedroom can readily be converted to a guest room, office, den, TV room, yoga studio or massage room (that was my wife’s idea), architect only space- whatever the homeowner wants or needs. What I’ve noticed is that a well-designed ADA-compliant home does not look or feel really any different than any other home. Most people won’t even know the home is designed differently.The

National Institute on Aging has other resources and links if you are considering aging place.

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