When building or remodeling, there are many adaptations that a homeowner can make to improve the usability and accessibility of their living quarters. Sometimes even the smallest changes such as the door levers and rocker switches we discussed earlier can make day to day living easier for any of us, but will be of tremendous help if an elderly parent comes to live with you - or when you are that elderly person staring back from the mirror.
Another moderate change that need not wait for a full scale remodel is a sliding
pocket door. These are generally great space savers in any tight spot but for
a person on a walker or in a wheelchair a sliding door may be an absolutely
necessity in order to enter a room. A regular door can block entry to a room
if it can not swing back well past the vertical in the door opening. A person
on a walker or crutches or in a chair trying to access a doorway with a door
that swings toward them has a real problem. They must get up close to the door
to grab the knob or lever then back up out of the way while pulling the door
with them. A pocket door eliminates that problem.
Keep crutches, wheelchairs, even a broken toe in mind when purchasing and placing furniture. Circuitous traffic patterns that are easy enough to manage with a spring in your step can seem miles longer if you must navigate them in a walking cast. If buying an oversized entertainment center or couch, make sure you can place them to allow a passageway of at least 38 inches with room to make any necessary turns.
If replacing carpet, go for a low pile carpeting. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) specifies a carpet with pile no more than 1/2 inch high. You may not want to live with a floor covering quite so close to commercial grade, but you might be happy some day that you avoided a thick, deep plush. Even pushing a non-self propelled vacuum across really thick pile is beyond the capacity of some older people.
The kitchen is the hardest room to make disability friendly. Standard counters are already uncomfortable work areas for persons of greater than average height so lowering them is pretty much out of the question. Upper cupboards are what they are. Even the vertically challenged have problems with the top shelves but they are indispensable for storage as long as somebody in the home can reach them. Still there are some proactive fixes to think about when remodeling your kitchen. Include a couple of pull out bread boards which will put work surfaces at a slightly more accessible level. A lowered countertop (with underlying cupboards set back to allow knee room) in one part of the kitchen will let a wheelchair-bound person or one who finds it difficult to stand for long periods to work comfortably. As a bonus it will provide an eating, homework, and project space for all family members. Long hoses on sprayers and/or faucets will make it easier to fill pots or rinse off dishes; roll out shelves or drawers inside lower cupboards and lazy-susan corner cupboards are a blessing regardless of your physical condition. And remember the lighting. Spot lighting over work areas and the ability to flood the entire room with light will become more important with each birthday.
A very high end adaptation is the new dishwasher drawers and refrigerator drawers. These are much easier for persons in wheelchairs or even suffering from a bad back to work with than traditional models.
Opt for smooth floor surfaces and check for slipperiness, particularly when wet. Some ceramics and marbles can literally be deadly for someone prone to falls.
Stoves are a tough call. If there are young children in the house, you want the burner knobs well out of reach. However, a stove that might eventually be operated by someone who is at all infirm (even a person with balance or vision problems) should have the knobs in a position that does not require the user to reach across the burners (or drag sleeves near one) to reach the controls. There are also new control knobs designed to be grasped and turned by those with severe arthritis.
Cupboard door and drawer pulls are an inexpensive retrofit. Pick those that are easy to grasp and, if there are no young children in the home, replace hard to open clip style latches with magnetic ones that are strong enough to keep the door closed but still give way with a slight tug.
But the place where advance planning may pay off both short term and long is remodeling the bathroom.
One quick fix is to replace an aged and water guzzling toilet with one that is both low flow and more comfortable and accessible. A standard toilet is about 15 inches from floor to the top of the seat. ADA specifications require a toilet that is 18 inches high. We have all seen those clunky commodes in handicapped stalls and probably would not want them in our home. But new designer toilets in what the manufacturers call "Right Height" or "Comfort Height" styles run around 18-1/2 inches and come in a number of very handsome designs. These higher-seated models are marketed as being more comfortable for everyone (although you probably don't want to put one in a family bath used by small children) and some health care professionals claim that they are actually more healthy than toilets of standard height.
Low flow toilets, by the way, are no longer the much maligned product they were when they were first required by code. New ones flush efficiently and are easier to clean than older models. They are an economical solution to escalating water and sewer bills.
Bathrooms in really old homes are often quite large but those in homes built in the 60's usually lack the space for much innovation. The ADA specifies a 60" x 60" turning space in handicapped 'loos; probably impossible in most houses. Still, one can opt for pedestal sinks or smaller sink/countertop structures to gain more floor space.
The ultimate luxury in new houses today is a walk-in shower. If you can manage this in your building or renovation plans you will have automatic handicapped accessibility as well as an attractive lure for buyers, but if not, at least put in a hand-held shower head, a small seat, and a selection of grab bars. The hand-held shower feels like a luxury to almost everyone and is a terrific convenience for bathing small children and large dogs. Grab bars should be sited both vertically and horizontally, be at various heights, and easy to reach from the front and back of the shower or tub. Make sure they are firmly bolted to studs. If incorrectly installed a grab bar becomes a hazard into itself.
There should be several grab bars in the bathroom proper as well; certainly one or two convenient to the toilet and maybe another to hold on to while drying feet or putting on pants or socks. Balance diminishes with age.
Pick a non-slip floor for the shower and the room as a whole. Bathrooms are dangerous places, largely because of slips and falls and this is particularly true for children and the elderly.
The small changes we have suggested in these two articles are not expensive
when part of a larger building or renovation project and virtually every one
offers some benefits in a home occupied by the able-bodied. Even those small
fixes that cost very little will contribute to a homes comfort and livability.