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 future.
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 tripping hazard.
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.