AGING IN PLACE:  Top Ten Home Safety Considerations

By Mary Swift, ASID, CID

Andrea (Andy) and Mac Bivers have been empty nesters for a few years now.  Mac’s two daughters from a previous marriage are on their own, and the couple thought more than once about taking advantage of the recent housing boom to sell their 1,350 square-foot home, at a profit, to buy something a little larger, maybe with an ocean view.

But each time they came back to the fact that they didn’t really need the extra space except when partying or hosting guests.  And at those times, they could expand into their large back yard to celebrate outdoors.  Plus, their mid-80’s-style home was sound, had a nice hill view, and the large yard was great for the dog. 

So, like many mid-lifers, Andy and Mac decided to stay put and refinance in order to pay their home off sooner, and do some remodeling.  After all, their single-level home was also ideal from a ‘next stage’ or ‘aging in place’ standpoint because it has no stairs.    

The U.S. Census Bureau findings indicate that the ranks of Americans over 65 will increase from the current 35 million to 40 million by 2010.  And Andy Kochera, senior policy advisor with AARP, says according to their 2000 survey, the vast majority of Americans over 55 (89 percent to be exact) plan to remain in their current home for “as long as possible.” 

If this includes you, consider some ‘aging in place’ modifications in your interior remodeling.  They go a long way toward increasing your home’s safety and convenience, and become a great investment in your home’s resale value if you do decide to move. 



It’s best to eliminate them if at all possible.  Even when we do our best to stay fit, we lose agility and quickness as we age, and stairs or changes in floor level, can become a hazard.  Sunken living rooms, for example, or fancy Jacuzzis that have a step up, are often problem areas. 

Where you do have stairs or a change in level, make the changes more prominent with color contrast, to draw the eye, and add non-slip materials.  These materials can often be inset into existing flooring. 



          Consider flat, smooth flooring instead of carpet.  When we don’t lift our feet as high, or shuffle them, carpet can make our feet ‘catch,’ and we trip.  If you really prefer carpet, consider a low, tight-woven carpet without a pad underneath.  It’s not as elegant or luxurious, but it’s easier to walk on. 

Tile floors should be of a slip-resistant texture.  While polished tiles are elegant, they are often slippery, especially in baths and kitchens.

Thresholds between different surfaces should also be as flat as possible to avoid tripping.  Construct smooth, flat transitions between rooms and different types of flooring materials.  Also avoid throw rugs.  Even with the nice under-rug gripper mats available today, the corners of the gripper mats and rugs can often stick up.



          Replace knobs with levers wherever possible.  Arthritic or weaker-muscled hands, especially when wet and soapy, can grab and turn a lever with more control.  Cross-handled faucets, while easier than knobs, are still not as good as levers because they require more finger dexterity.

Cabinets that are clean, without hardware, are great for simple designs, but their built-in finger grooves are often a problem for arthritic hands.  Consider adding ‘D-shaped,’ easy-to-grab handles. 



          If remodeling the whole bath, consider a shower with no curb, to provide roll-in access for a wheelchair.  Even a temporary injury can sometimes involve using a wheelchair for a limited time. 

When the shower stall has no lip or curb, water is kept out through a combination of a slightly-sloped floor, a larger drain, and a shower curtain.  Also consider a built-in shower seat, or a stool.  This seat can be formed as part of the original tiling, or some firms manufacture specially constructed, teak or water-resistant stools or seats, or permanent seats that attach to the shower wall.  They can be folded up, out of the way, when not needed (see photo).

Does the tub have easy access?  Is there a place to sit down and swing your legs over?  Kohler now makes the ‘Precedence’ tub, with a swinging door and flip-down seat. 



In both shower and tub, are there sturdy, properly-installed grab bars to hold on to?  These safety features need not look clinical and can be disguised to look like something else.  Some firms now manufacture bath shelves, picture molding, and towel bars that do double duty as grab bars.  (Note:  Regular towel bars don’t make good grab bars - - they won’t hold!)



          When replacing a toilet, be sure to check the rim height, which can vary from 14 to 16-1/2 inches.  Thigh strength diminishes with age and if the seat height is too low, dropping onto the seat may cause compression of the spine and possible fracture of the vertebra.  Kohler makes the ‘Comfort Height’ toilet, and Toto provides the ‘Dalton’ at 16-1/8 inches high, and the ‘Drake’ at 16-1/2 inches high.  The toilet seat itself can add another inch in height.




          We need substantially more light for everything in our later years.  It’s much better to over-light and provide dimmers, than to under-light our living spaces.  If you’re updating or changing out your light switches, consider adding lighted rocker switches.  They’re easier to use and serve as great night lights. 



          As you replace furniture, buy chairs and sofas with sturdy arms to assist you in getting up and down comfortably.  Firm-fill chairs and sofas are easier to get out of too, while extra soft furniture is not. 

Make sure seat heights are about 18 to 20 inches, for the same reasons.



Counter height can go one of two ways, obviously: higher or lower.  In some cases, higher is better, especially if you and your family members are tall.  Taller bath vanities and taller kitchen counters are less stressful on lower backs; less leaning over. 
However, where wheel chairs are necessary, you might consider lowering your vanities and kitchen islands.  Also, wall-mounted and pedestal sinks are easier for wheelchair access than standard vanities. 



          If you’re going beyond mere interior remodeling and doing some major retrofitting, then by all means consider widening doors to 36 inches to accommodate wheelchairs.  Also take a second look at thresholds, door location (for easy access) and possible ramp needs. 


Principal of Swift Design Group in Laguna Niguel, Mary Swift guides clients in interior planning and design, and oversees all outsourced design vendors.  For over 20 years, Mary has specialized in project management, space planning, color and ‘aging in place’  issues.  Design for aging in place questions can be directed to Mary at 949-770-1831.