Universal Design Supports Independent Senior Living

The first of earthly blessings, independence ~ Edward Gibbon

Have you ever had to walk stairs that seem just a bit too high for your stride? Or strained on your tip toes in efforts to reach something high on a shelf? How about fumbling with a slick door knob just trying to get into your own room? Now imagine you are a 75-year-old senior citizen, significantly less sprightly than when you were young, a bit frail, occasionally off-balance, attempting to do these same things. Not only can it be challenging, it can be downright dangerous as one false step, a sudden fall, and a life-impacting injury can occur.

Most elderly would prefer to “age in place”, continuing their senior life in familiar surroundings within a familiar neighborhood. An AARP study found that 89 percent of Americans want to stay where they are living for as long as possible and for those 75+, the number rises to 95 percent. However, to do so safely require the right environment to support the typical needs brought on by old age, specifically within the home, but also the surrounding neighborhood. Universal Design is one way to fit the bill, defined by Wikipedia as broad-spectrum architectural planning ideas meant to produce buildings, products and environments that are inherently accessible to both the able-bodied and the physically disabled.”

Universal design came about after World War II to address returning veterans and the disabled. Today, it has been expanded to address the requirements of senior living. Properly implemented, universal design can make a big difference in facilitating independent retirement living.

Checklist – where you can make a difference

Kitchen – AARP indicates that the kitchen is the single place where universal design can have the most impact. Counter tops should be at an easily accessible height. Side by side refrigerators are easier to negotiate than those with freezers either above or below. Storage should allow easy access to contents via pull out drawers or lazy-Susan-type devices. Faucets are easiest to control with a single lever instead of multiple knobs for hot and cold.

Bathroom – an improperly prepared bathroom can be a dangerous place with the ever-present threat of slipping and falling. Some areas to focus on include: non-slip strips and floors on showers and tubs is a must; toilets that are at a comfortable height; support bars in the bath and shower as an added safety measure; bath tubs can now be had with doors to enter them instead of having to climb down into the tub; showers that are flush to the floor, with no edge to step over are finding their way into homes.

General – AgingInPlace.com lists five tips for universal design including adapting the main floor for one level living and widening doorways to 36 inches with offset hinges. Some other general areas to improve include: bright lighting throughout the home to clearly illuminate rooms; levers for door handles instead of knobs; non-slip strips on the edge of stairs inside and out; light switches with the large flat panel instead of the old flip switch; electrical outlets that are higher from the floor for easier access; there are lamps that you can turn on and off simply by touching the lamp itself, removing the hassle of locating and turning the sometimes hard to find switch; smooth ground-level entrances without stairs.

Neighborhood considerations – is the neighborhood easy to navigate for a senior citizen? How much of a journey is it to the local grocery store, restaurants, community center, and fitness spa? Having these important places within walking distance – and not over steep hills or along dangerous boulevards – is an essential part to living independently in a community. How thorough is public transit in the area to get seniors to those destinations beyond the range of their walking?  Are there benches and areas to rest along the way?

The little things become increasing challenging as we age but that does not mean we are out of the game. There are adjustments that can be made to improve the quality of our retired lives. Attention to the details inside the home can support senior independent living. Knowing the layout of the neighborhood and taking advantage of available resources to get around helps to maintain independent living. We all want to remain independent for as long as possible. Universal design considerations can make it possible a little longer.

7 thoughts on “Universal Design Supports Independent Senior Living

  1. These are great ideas and should become standard for homes as we get older. When my husband and I build our home for retirement, it will contain most of these ideas so we can age in place.

    My husband has always wanted a daylight basement and I finally won that argument. I don’t want any stairs to contend with as we get older.

    When my dad had his hip replacement, my mom really fought putting in grab bars in the shower because she thought it would lower the value of their home. I told her it would probably add to it, really. More and more people need that sort of thing.

    • We are on the same page Joan. Planning to make a move to the coast in the not-too-distant future. Any remodeling or actual building will take into consideration things we can do to “seniorize” our home.

  2. I am very supportive of this discussion since my parents are of the age where these issues are important.

    Even planned retirement communities fall short at times, however. In the well-respected, well-run, and expensive retirement community where Mom & Dad live the bath rooms are small with tight turns and little room to maneuver. Grab bars are only installed if requested. Mom has fallen twice in the “master bath” which is smaller than our powder room.

    Even those who should know better cut corners.

  3. We are redoing our master bath. No tub. Wide- walk in shower with a bench and bars.
    When my husband had his hip replaced at 58 the shower with a lip was a hazard.
    We have one small step into the house at the front and garage doors- otherwise we are accessible. We are also in the process of putting in pocket doors (no hinges).
    We have an entire downstairs that can be made into a caretaker’s house. We enjoy it now for a movie room and a place where the kids can come. We know it can be easily converted to a place where a young family can live while we live upstairs.
    No reason to wait until you are 80 to do it. I think our house will actually become MORE sellable when we are done.

    • Based on your description, it sounds like you are ahead of the game!And I agree that this type of improvement will only make the house a better candidate to sell when you decide to do so.

  4. As people age, it’s important to maintain physical, mental, and emotional health. Exercising, volunteering, and staying active are some ways senior citizens can improve their health and mind.

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