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Modifications can remove the obstacles to aging in place

Special to The Washington Post

September 06. 2018 11:36PM
Moving the washer and dryer from the walk-out basement to the main level was high on Rebecka Snell's wish list. (NICK COTE/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Rebecka Snell, 65, says she knew that if she and her husband, Vic Labson, were to continue living in their 1960s ranch home in Lakewood, Colo., improvements would have to be made to create a safer and more enjoyable space.

Moving the washer and dryer from the walkout basement to the main level was high on her wish list.

“It was not just going up and down stairs; it was carrying laundry baskets up and down the stairs,” Snell said.

She consulted with Barbara Barton, a master kitchen and bath designer and certified Living In Place professional in Littleton, Colo., who laid out a plan to provide a suitable and comfortable space.

To accommodate Snell, “we included the stackable washer and dryer hidden behind cabinet doors on the main level,” Barton said. “Then, we knew we needed to add better railings on the stairs going down to the basement. And for the family room, there was just one rail, and we added a second.”

For many older adults, there’s no place like their own home. The problem is that most of the nation’s housing is not designed to accommodate physical and cognitive challenges that come with aging.

Steep stairways, narrow hallways and other structural barriers can make an older home feel like an indoor obstacle course. A few universal design modifications can go a long way in helping residents of all ages live safely and comfortably in their homes.

Here are some home improvement ideas that might allow you to comfortably remain in your home rather than having to move elsewhere as you get older:

• Invest in smart-home products. Technology is a game-changer for remaining independent in your home and staying connected with others, says Erik Listou, co-founder of the Denver-based Living In Place Institute, which trains professionals in the housing and medical fields on accessibility and safety in the home. Sensors can keep a virtual eye on you and your home to improve comfort, security and energy efficiency. As you move around your home, the devices can report back to a caretaker or a loved one about your daily routine.

Voice-controlled personal assistant devices give you the ability to turn on or off household items such as lights, a TV or a thermostat. Moreover, with a push of a button, you can control connected-home systems around the house, including sprinklers, windows and locks.

• Fall-proof your home. The National Institute on Aging reports that six out of every 10 falls happen at home. By making a few modifications, you can increase your safety and comfort.

For starters, install handrails on both sides of a stairway to prevent nasty tumbles, being sure they extend beyond the top and bottom of stairs.

Modifying the front entryway so the surface from the exterior to the interior is level will reduce the risk of falling and make the transition from the outside to the inside easier.

“If the house has front steps, add a handrail on each side,” Listou said, noting that, ideally, you would reconfigure the entryway to have a sloping walkway rather than steps.

A door overhang at the main entrance can shield you from the elements and reduce the risk of slipping during inclement weather.

Eliminate slipping and tripping hazards indoors by removing floor mats and throw rugs. Choose floor coverings that are slip-resistant, durable for wheelchair or walker use and able to smoothly make the transition to adjacent rooms. If the budget allows, install a stair lift or elevator.

with two grab bars. The shower wall was prepped with bracing for a future fold-down seat, and the toilet paper holder integrates a grab bar.

Even a cramped powder room can be made more accessible.

The door can be modified to a sliding door, and a pedestal sink will take up less floor space than a bulky vanity.

• Modify the kitchen. Conveniences such as rollout shelves and a microwave oven at counter height can help you maintain independence in the kitchen. Ideally, you would have open space beneath the sink to provide wheelchair accessibility.

An electric cooktop with controls on the front will eliminate the need to reach across hot burners. To avoid having to bend over, add seated work spaces for food preparation.

Snell’s revamped kitchen includes an induction cooktop, which offers the safety of no open flame. The control panel is operated by the touch of a finger. Pullout drawers provide easy access, and the dishwasher is raised six inches from the floor for easy access and less bending. Two ovens that are separate from the cooktop are raised to prevent leaning over. At the center of the kitchen, the island is convenient and accessible for meal preparation.

• Aging in the right place. Some house designs might not be practical or cost-effective for aging in place.

For example, Denver resident Larry Armstrong’s former home, a two-story, turn-of-the century Victorian, was not a good candidate for modification.

“It had high ceilings and winding staircases,” said Armstrong, 71, a certified Living In Place professional who works with remodelers and designers.

Instead of renovating, Armstrong and his wife came up with Plan B, moving to a three-bedroom, ranch-style bungalow.