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We’re getting older. Every day 10,000 Baby Boomers turn 65—part of a huge shift in America, as 79 million Boomers start marching into their later years. But don’t expect them to march into nursing homes. “Close to 83 percent of Boomers say they want to ‘age in place,’ ” says Amy Levner, manager of livable communities for AARP, the advocacy group for older Americans. In other words, people want to stay in their homes as long as they can.
If you are among this population or nearing it (or have parents who are), there are lots of changes, small and large, that you can make to keep your home safe, comfortable, and fully enjoyable in the years ahead.
1. Limit the Steps
Having easy access to and from the house is an important feature in any home. But for older homeowners, particularly those suffering from mobility issues, it’s paramount. If you’re planning on retooling the exterior of your house, the experts recommend that you try to devise an entry without stairs. It needn’t look like a handicap ramp; if there’s space, the approach can simply be a nice slope to the doorway. If you’re putting in a ramp—or even adding walkways or decks—consider using nonslip materials. And if you can do nothing more, at least plan on a no-threshold front door to reduce the risk of tripping.
2. Go Low Maintenance
When it comes time to replace exterior materials, choose products that require little or no maintenance, such as vinyl siding, metal roofing, and composite decking. These products will offer dual benefits of good looks and lasting performance. You can reduce landscape maintenance, too, by choosing native plants and installing a time-activated sprinkler system.
3. Improve Convenience
In the kitchen, install cabinets with pull-out shelves on rollers, so it’s easier to access the items inside. And opt for drawers rather than base cabinets. They will make it easier to retrieve contents without having to reach into the back of cabinets. Consider installing your dishwasher 12 inches off the floor to cut down on bending. If you want to install an eating counter, plan on its sitting 29 to 30 inches from the floor—a height comfortable for dining chairs rather than barstools.
4. Choose Smart Appliances
Today’s manufacturers continue to make innovative design improvements in programmable and smart appliances, such as stoves that notify you with a beep when they turn on or that have controls that light up, says Levner. These can be a real help to older homeowners as their sight deteriorates or they get a bit forgetful about whether or not they’ve turned off the oven. Home automation is another important component of aging-in-place improvements; sensors and timers can monitor house systems to alert homeowners, as well as care and security providers, to potential problems.
5. Bathe Safely
If you have a walk-in shower, consider changing it to a zero-clearance shower—one with no threshold or step to negotiate, says Levner. It’s a good idea to add a stool as well. Replace your toilet with a comfort-height model; it’s just a bit higher than normal—more consistent with standard dining chair seat height—and easier to sit down on and get up from. “Add some well-placed bars that you can grab on to, to steady yourself or to pull yourself upright,” says Tori Goldhammer, an occupational therapist and a Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist (CAPS), a certification given by the National Association of Home Builders.
6. Go Hands-Free
For both kitchen and bath faucets, consider fixtures that offer the benefit of touch or hands-free operation. For the kitchen, opt for a faucet with a pull-out spout to make cleanup and food prep more convenient. In the bath, select a faucet that can monitor temperatures to reduce the risk of burns.
7. Ditch the Throw Rugs
Avoid small throw rugs, as they are “big tripping hazards,” Levner says. If you insist on area rugs, look for those with a skid-resistant backing. Or better yet, go with carpeting that covers the entire room. There are a lot of nice, new slip-resistant flooring surfaces that have more texture “and that still look great,” she says.
8. Master the Stairs
If you have a second floor, stairs are unavoidable—but they can still be made more user-friendly. Be sure they are covered in a slip-resistant material and, if possible, install a second banister on the opposite wall. Consider locating a chair at the base or top of the stair so that people can steady themselves after the climb or descent.
9. Up the Lighting
Our eyesight gets worse as we age, so it’s important to improve lighting wherever possible. One of the best solutions is “layered lighting,” says Goldhammer, where a mix of ambient, task, focal, and decorative fixtures fulfill various requirements. Don’t forget to add more lighting in tricky, often dark places such as stairways and hallways, as well as bathrooms and kitchens, where task-specific lighting will be most useful. Consider adding more light switches outside rooms and raising outlets to a more convenient height.
10. First-Floor Master Bedroom
“If you’re doing a major renovation, make sure there’s a bedroom on the lower level—one that could become the master bedroom in the future,” says Wid Chapman, an architect and co-author of the books Home Design in an Aging World and Unassisted Living. The room can double as a guest room now, or even a den, Chapman suggests. But outfit the room so that at a future time, if you or your spouse can no longer negotiate stairs, you can make this ground-level room your bedroom.