“Home sweet home”: the place where you’ve enjoyed time with family, celebrated milestones, created numerous memories—and most recently, reached that long-awaited and well-deserved retirement. And while previous generations of retirees once looked forward to senior living communities and lives of leisure, today’s seniors have different aspirations: 90% report that they want to age in place1, making it necessary for many to rightsize and remodel their current homes.
Despite this large shift of retiring seniors wishing to remain in their homes, the reality is that most homes aren’t designed to accommodate the needs of older adults, or those with disabilities. In fact, of the more than 100 million homes across US cities, suburbs and rural areas, only about 1% are conducive to aging in place2.
As a result, successfully aging in place inevitably will require today’s seniors to make some changes around the house. From even the smallest of repairs and modifications to a complete comprehensive remodeling, every change made can make it easier and safer for seniors to stay in their homes and carry out everyday tasks. Research by the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that home modifications and repairs may prevent up to 50% of all home accidents among seniors,3 so it’s vitally important to make these modifications as soon as possible.
So how do you know what changes may be needed in your home, or a loved one’s home? It starts with a room-by-room analysis.
Ensuring comfort and safety in all rooms is at the heart of the aging in place movement. And what better place to start than the heart of the home, itself? Even in larger spaces, such as the living room, there can be potential hazards for seniors—especially if they face mobility challenges. For instance, something as simple as an end table blocking an otherwise clear path for wheelchair access, or an area rug that someone could easily trip over, could pose problems.
Fortunately, these pitfalls can be avoided, and it starts by taking a proactive approach. If you want to age in place, the best plan of action is to anticipate what changes you may eventually need and start implementing them now. To get started, consider these factors:
Ample Room to Move Around
As you age in place, the difference between a living room one you have to avoid is whether or not you have enough room to navigate and access everything you need. Beyond just the physical size of your living room space, how you choose to organize the space can make all the difference in how safely you can maneuver it. Dealing with a cluttered living room? Free up some much-needed space by relocating items to other rooms throughout the house, or give any family-related or sentimental objects to loved ones.
How Safe is the Furniture?
Furniture ultimately plays a major role in determining the optimal layout of your living room. Regardless of what kind of furniture you currently have in your home, aging in place requires you to look ahead. And while comfort matters, safety needs to be the top priority. That old recliner or chair that you’ve had for years may be comfortable, but could present struggles and risks when you try to get out of it in years to come. The good news is that there are several furniture options available that are designed specifically to help seniors safely age in place. From adjustable recliners, to ones that lift you up to a near-standing position, there are many options (and affordable ones, too!) designed to protect seniors and reduce the risk of fall or injury.
Close Proximity and Access to a Phone
Communication is key for any senior living at home or wanting to age in place. And while having a cell phone in your pocket or clipped to your hip is undoubtedly the best way to reduce the risk of not having access to a phone, it’s not the only option. You can get a phone system with multiple handsets in the home, or simply keep a corded phone in every room of the house. When it comes to phone access, you can never be too prepared. Getting to a phone quickly is important, and could be vital in case of an emergency.
The kitchen is one of every home’s main activity hubs. If you or a loved one plan to stay put for the long haul, a lot of time will be spent in this room—from baking and cooking, to crafting, and even paying the bills. Unfortunately, among people who are considering remodeling to age in place, only 20% prioritize the kitchen.4 So when assessing your kitchen, be sure to account for the following.
Are Cabinets Well Within Reach?
When it comes to working in an “aging in place” friendly kitchen, cabinets should be three inches lower than their typical height. Lower cabinets can also be made more accessible by installing pullout shelves and Lazy Susans. These not only go a long way to maximize storage space, but also reduce the risk of back strain. The best part? These shelving units are available at nearly any major home improvement store, making them an easy DIY project you can take on yourself—or with the help of a few friends or family members.
Assess Your Working Triangle
The “working triangle” refers to the most important and frequently used appliances in any kitchen—your oven, sink, and refrigerator. For ease of use, you want to have these three appliances as close together as possible, and preferably all on the same level. Prioritizing and maximizing this space makes for a safe and efficient prep, cooking, and cleanup process.
Check Your Lighting
A safe kitchen is a well-lit kitchen, so when assessing yours, make sure that the most-used areas are getting enough light. Installing fixtures under the cabinet—or task lighting for the sink, stove, and work areas—is a good place to start. You should also make sure that light switches are easy to use and accessibly placed, within an arm’s reach of the kitchen entrance. Better yet, the latest in home automation technology features a motion-sensing light switch that turns “on” as soon as someone enters the kitchen. No matter which type you choose to implement, the right lighting can go a long way to prevent kitchen accidents, create a more suitable work environment, and reduce eye strain.
It’s easy to look at certain rooms in the house, such as the kitchens and bathrooms, and see the challenges or risks they’ll present in years to come. But it’s just as easy to overlook one of the most important rooms: since bedrooms are often associated with rest and comfort, planning ahead to avoid potential hazards there may be low on your priority list. Truth is, you do more living in the bedroom than you may think.
From sleeping to waking and getting ready for the day, to preparing for day’s end, you’ll need to navigate your bedroom just as easily as any other room—often in the dark. And for elderly people with physical or mobility problems, getting in and out of bed and getting dressed can be a challenge. With this in mind, you need to plan ahead for a safe, comfortable bedroom to successfully age in place.
Clear, Safe Walkways
Regardless of the size and layout of your bedroom, having clear walkways is a top priority. Declutter cramped spaces and remove all area and throw rugs that could present a risk for tripping or falls. Any bulky items or pieces of furniture should also be moved if they obstruct the walkway.
Technology, Cords and Cables
Officially in the so-called “digital age,” today’s technology empowers individuals to do more than ever before with extra independence—and has the potential to make aging in place both safer and easier for seniors. Start by making sure that the room is equipped with Wi-Fi if needed and that all charging stations for phones, tablets, or other devices are easy to use and well within reach. Keep in mind that charging cables can turn into tripping hazards, so you’ll need to make sure that any cords or wires are kept out of high-traffic areas.
A master bedroom fit for aging in place should ideally include a spacious, accessible walk-in closet, with easily reachable storage. To refit your current closet, be sure to lower the shelves to eliminate the risk of tumbling from a step stool. And never store heavy items on upper shelves, where they could potentially fall and cause injury. While storage is a closet’s top purpose, you’ll also want your space to be well-lit. Good lighting and the installation of strong task lights make it easier to identify clothing, colors and item organization. You can even take this one step further by adding a light with a motion sensor that illuminates whenever the closet door is opened.
Did you know that of all the rooms in a house, the bathroom is among those most prone to accidents? In fact, due to their slippery surfaces and hard flooring, bathrooms are the cause of nearly 235,000 non-fatal injuries in the US alone, per year.5 If you find that your current bathroom is inconvenient or poses safety risks, it may be time to seriously consider a remodel—and remodeling a bathroom for aging in place has some key differences as compared to a standard remodel that’s based on aesthetics or home value. Consider the following before you start—and as you’re going through the process.
Bathroom Door Width
Regardless of what type of aid you may need in future years, you’ll need to be able to access your bathroom—and not all bathroom doors are wide enough to accommodate mobility devices like wheelchairs and walkers. And while you may not need one now, you’ll want to be prepared should the need arise later on. Since doors come in standard sizes, you’ll need exact measurements on what size is the best fit and how wide the door opening must be. The key here is to get the door frame size as exact as possible to enable the door to properly open and close.
No matter how you choose to remodel your tub or shower, there are a variety of options available. Walk-in showers are available without a tub or ledge you’d have to step over, for easy entry. You should also consider a removable shower head to allow for more movement and ease of use. These aging-friendly options extend to tubs as well. If the standard step-in tub doesn’t work for you, there are walk-in tubs now available, complete with a door and watertight seal. This allows you to stay seated and relax, with the ability to freely get in and out of the tub much more easily.
Grab Bars and Rails
When people think of rightsizing a home for aging in place, railings and grab bars often come to mind. And for good reason—they’re one of the most important things you can add to a remodeling project. Grab bars and rails can be installed just about anywhere and should be mounted into studs to ensure they’re as secure as possible. When deciding what and where to install, consider the space you have available, whether or not these features already come built into the tub or shower, and how you plan on, or may need to, transfer from one area of the bathroom to another.
Non-Slip Floors, Mats, and Rugs
It’s no secret that certain types of tile and flooring can become very slippery—especially when wet. For an aging-friendly bathroom, you’ll need to consider flooring that isn’t as slick, such as laminate or textured rougher tiles. And while many homeowners utilize mats and rugs to protect the floor and keep it from getting too slick, these can ultimately pose tripping hazards. If you’re considering a rug for your bathroom, make sure it’s thinner so it won’t easily bunch up and has a rubber backing to keep it from sliding.
Out-dated or potentially problematic house designs force many aging homeowners to relocate and leave their homes behind—but it doesn’t have to be this way.
By proactively planning for and making the necessary modifications, senior homeowners can continue to perform the necessary tasks to take care of themselves and safely navigate and reside in their homes.
So now that we’ve identified some of the many ways to rightsize your home to successfully age in place, you’re probably left thinking, “How am I going to be able to pay for these modifications?”
We have good news if you’re age 62 or older. A Home Equity Conversion Mortgage (HECM) could be just the solution to make it easier to afford these updates to improve your quality of life. Also known as a Reverse Mortgage, a HECM lets you access a portion of the equity in your home to improve your income and monthly cash flow. Unlike a traditional forward mortgage—where the borrower must begin repaying the loan right away—you don’t have to repay funds received through a HECM until after you no longer live in the home. Since there are no monthly mortgage payments required on the HECM, you can eliminate that monthly expense and keep more cash to use in any way you’d like, such as updating, repairing, or modifying your home to live more comfortably.