It is amazing that, despite that the U.S. population is rapidly aging, builders
of conventional homes nearly everywhere and condos outside of retirement Mecca's
are still constructing as through the units will always be occupied by the healthy,
young, and spry.
While there are some builders who feature shower grab bars
in bathrooms, these are as much a function of pre-constructed fiberglass units
that arrive equipped that way as any conscious decision on the builders' part
to plan ahead. Changing local codes are driving more small adaptations than
our creative forethought.
Houses are still constructed with doorways that aren't quite wide enough to
accommodate a wheelchair and garages built with the only access to the house
by way of five or six steep steps.
The irony is that it isn't always the aged who are thwarted by home architecture
and construction. How many fit and healthy young adults or their kids break
a leg skiing, sprain an ankle jogging, or suffer a premature and permanent debilitating
illness or injury such as Multiple Sclerosis or Cerebral Palsy. Families also
increasingly confront the possibility of taking care of an aging parent who,
even if physically active, have some age related problems, even as minor as
requiring brighter light for reading as they get on in years.
For a moment just imagine the difficulty of caring for yourself or another
adult or child with a serious physical limitation, either for a short time or
forever, in your current or any other traditional American house.
This is not to advocate that every home be designed solely to accommodate a
problem which will hopefully never burden any of us as homeowners. Nor is a
fully retrofitted home with ramps, roll-in bathing, or handicapped height toilets
necessarily an attractive candidate for resale where potential buyers have no
present need for those adaptations and are not necessarily planning for the
But, if you are planning on building a house or making substantial renovations
to your existing home, take a little tour of that house or those plans to see
where some non-invasive changes might make the house easier to use today and
tomorrow, regardless of the fortune life deals out in health matters. Such small
adaptations might be priceless should fortune not be kind and might offer very
real benefits for your occupancy even in your young and healthy years.
One change you can be guaranteed to appreciate should you be in the house past
your fiftieth birthday or so is lighting. Anyone who lives
in an older home - pre 1980's at a minimum - is frustrated by the lack of electrical
outlets for the electronic marvels that have come our way in the last 20 years.
This is also a problem as senior more and more need a strong lamp near every
work area. Numerous outlets along each wall will permit spot reading and work
lighting and will also eliminate cords trailing across traffic areas, a sure
An easy fix which can be done anytime is doorknobs. Ever lathered
up with lotion just before a kid starts hollering to come in or the dog whines
to go out? Lots of fun turning that knob, right? For those suffering from arthritis,
lotion isn't required to make this task uncomfortable at best, impossible at
worst. Door levers are terrific alternatives to knobs. Easy
to install, a few at a time as time and finances allow, a lever can be managed
by a person with arms or hands full of hot foods or groceries, are more easily
operated by children (although care should be taken to install them to allow
access only where you want kids to have it), and are much more easily managed
by persons with limited mobility. Some find them much more attractive than modern
metal knobs although replacing marble or glass knobs of Victorian vintage might
be a tough call.
Another quick adaptation is rocker switch plates. These are
attractive and some even serve as a nightlight in the off position. They are
easily operated by an elbow when hands are full and are much easier for arthritic
hands to "flip." They can even be operated from a vertical or horizontal distance
(from a nearby bed for example) by a cane or other long and lightweight instrument.
Thresholds between rooms are a common barrier. Unless you
have spent time in a wheelchair you cannot appreciate how difficult it is to
navigate over those square edged marble babies that delineate bathrooms. If
it is necessary to install a threshold to secure flooring between rooms make
sure it is gradually rounded to allow wheels to easily roll over it and to minimize
any tripping hazard regardless of age group. If existing thresholds serve no
function, get rid of them.
If you have occasion to rebuild a stoop or porch, keep accessibility
in mind. Four or six regular steep steps from the sidewalk to the door are going
to be tough to handle if great-grandma wants to come for Thanksgiving dinner.
Much better to construct a series of shallow steps (within the limitations of
local codes) with landings long enough to put down a wheelchair after boosting
it up each couple of steps or provide a safe resting spot for someone on crutches
or a walker. Such construction will also make it much easier to build
a wheelchair ramp if that should ever be necessary. As a side benefit,
such long stoops usually offer some intriguing landscaping possibilities and
are easier to keep snow and ice free in winter.
Code usually doesn't require handrails on very short staircases, but even one
or two steps can be a hazard for someone with balance problems or bad joints.
If you have a short rise between rooms install a safe handrail.
Even toddlers will appreciate it.
If you are building, make sure all doorways are at least 30
inches; 36 if possible. This applies even to closets and pantries - especially
closets in the adult areas of the house. Take any opportunity to get rid of
24" or 28" doors in your existing home. If interior doors are not functional,
i.e., they are always open, get rid of them. This will automatically widen the
doorway and will make placement of furniture more flexible. Pocket doors
are another solution to a seldom used door, something we will take more about
when we investigate retrofitting a kitchen or bath for the future.