The house you purchased when you were younger may not be right for you as you age. Stairs, tile flooring, whirlpool baths and other features that once were so attractive can, over time, become hazardous.
One in four Americans 65 and older falls each year, according to the National
Council on Aging. Taking precautions now can help keep you from becoming one of those statistics later.
The good news is that you can do that without making your home look like a hospital.
“There are plenty of stylish fixtures and strategies available that can help homeowners age in place so they can live independently for years,” said Kristin Hefty, co-owner of the architecture and construction firm the Dado Group.
We talked with Hefty and several other local home design experts for suggestions on aging in place stylishly and affordably. Here’s what they told us.
Door and cabinet pulls. Round pulls can be difficult, even painful to grasp for someone with arthritis, Parkinson’s disease or other conditions that affect grip strength or hand coordination. Longer “D” and “C” handles, named for their shape, are more ergonomic and therefore easier to use. They’re also less likely to snag clothing and cause a fall. Depending on the style, these handles can cost as little as a few dollars each.
Door knobs. Traditional round knobs also can be slippery and hard to turn for many older adults. Levered door handles are easier to grasp and manipulate by someone with grip problems or just both hands full of groceries. Prices start at $25 to $50 for two-sided levers, and they can easily be installed by most weekend DIYers. New, high-tech smart locks such as Kwikset’s Halo Touch are even easier to operate, using only the homeowner's fingerprint to lock and unlock exterior doors.
Doorways. Most residential doors are between 23 and 27 inches wide, too narrow to accommodate a wheelchair and tight even for someone using a walker or cane. Widening a doorway to the Americans with Disabilities Act standard of 31 inches will cost $300 to $2,500 per door, depending on the complexity of the job. Cheaper workarounds include installing offset or “Z” hinges, which allow doors to swing clear of the doorway and add an additional inch or two of clearance, or removing the door and door trim entirely. Finally, most interior doors swing inward, making it difficult for help to arrive should someone inside the room fall against the door. Consider rehanging bedroom and bathroom doors so they swing out, which should cost several hundred dollars per room.
Grab bars. Getting in and out of a slippery bath or shower can be treacherous. A permanently mounted grab bar provides safety and confidence while a janky one — looking at you suction cup grab bars — provides only a false sense of security.
“Grab bars are available in every finish and color,” said Nate Kear, owner of the local franchise of TruBlue Total House Care, a handyman and home maintenance company. “I recommend bars with textured handles for a better grip.”
Some grab bars, such as those in Delta Faucet’s Décor Assist line, do double duty as both grab bar and towel rack, shampoo caddy and toilet paper holder. Grab bars also can be installed anywhere falls are a danger, such as at the front door or at a step-down between two rooms. Depending on the situation, installation costs range from about $85 to $300.
Zero-threshold showers. A small step over between the bathroom floor and shower can be a dangerous trip hazard. With a curb less shower, the transition is seamless and safer. Kits that retrofit an existing shower cost between $3,000 and $6,000, depending on the size and complexity of the job. They may include a linear drain across the doorway to prevent water from flowing out.
Nonslip bathroom flooring. Traditional tile can be slippery when wet and unforgiving in a fall. Better choices are nonslip vinyl, cork or bamboo and rubber flooring, which are all available in attractive styles that will fit with your home’s look. When choosing a floor material, ask the retailer for the product’s Dynamic Coefficient of Friction Rating, a measure of slip-resistance. You want flooring with a rating of 0.42 or higher.
If you don’t want to replace the entire floor, consider applying an anti-slip coating from companies like Trusty Step. Or place cushioned anti-fatigue mats at high-risk spots like the shower entrance and in front of the sink. Soft on the feet, they’re also heavy enough that they tend to stay in place.
Step-downs. Easy-to-miss changes in floor elevation are a common trip hazard. Adding visual cues can make the transition more obvious. Paint the riser (the vertical surface between steps) a lighter color so it stands out; stain or paint the leading edge of the upper step a contrasting color; or install a thin LED light strip under the lip of the upper step. A larger project would be to raise the lower floor to bring it level with the upper.
Stair railings. While a two-story home is likely to have railings on one or both sides
of the staircase (and if it doesn’t, they should be added), steps leading to the front
or back doors often do not. Adding custom railings made of wrought iron or wood
will make the home safer.
“They can really be attractive, too, and improve the appearance of your home,” said
Debra Maltz, a broker associate with Kuper Sotheby’s International Realty and
owner of the residential property management and leasing company Centro
And they’re not too expensive — about $1,000 for a three-step railing, including
materials and labor.
Additional illumination. “There aren’t many homes that don’t need more lighting,”
said Felix Ziga, owner of Ziga Architecture Studio. “It’s safer and makes the rest of
the house look better, too.”
Ziga suggests adding nightlights that turn on automatically in bathrooms and bedrooms and motion-sensor lights in hallways, stairways and along outdoor paths. Light switches with LEDs also are easier to find in the dark, while high-intensity task lighting is helpful for close work, such as in the kitchen, bathroom, reading and work areas.
Declutter. Making a home safer doesn’t always mean adding things. Sometimes it’s
better to take them away. You don’t have to remove all area rugs. Just slide them
away from high-traffific areas. And tie up any loose electrical cords, such as those
that power lamps and TVs and especially any that run into the room, such as the
cord for air purififiers, fans, etc.