While on a recent phone conversation with my best friend we got to talking about her parents and their (in her opinion) impulsive purchase. They were in North Carolina on vacation and bought a plot of land. They plan to build a house on it over the next couple of years and by the time they retire it will be ready for them to move in. Being a gerontology student and always thinking about long-term care needs, I babbled on for a few minutes about universal design. If they intend to build this home and stay in it for as long as possible, I told my friend, then they should consider their future needs.

Recent statistics show that about 80% of baby boomers want to remain in their homes for as long as possible (and Obama’s new Affordable Care Act may help them do just that with the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports (CLASS) program and the expansion of Home and Community-Based Services. A story for another time). If you start planning for it now, you don’t have to have oodles of money to build a house from scratch like my friend’s parents. Let me share with you what I feel are the key components of universal design and home modifications:

  • Think About Daily Activities – when modifying your home to support you in old age focus on making it easy to perform basic activities like bathing, cooking, or getting into and out of your home. Examples:
  1. Install grab bars in the bathroom
  2. Replace doorknobs or faucet handles with lever handles
  3. Install handrails on both sides of any staircases inside or outside your home (or consider ramps)
  4. Create some easy access storage in the kitchen such as a pull-out pantry or adjustable shelves
  • Consider the Age of Your Home – Most older adults live in homes that are over 20 years old and these can have some issues as you age. Some updates to your home can help you age in place. Examples:
  1. Install proper insulation, storm windows, and air conditioning so you have good heating and ventilation
  2. Create 36-inch wide doorways throughout the house for easy access with a wheelchair or walker
  3. Move outlets 18-inches off the floor so you’ll be able to reach them without much bending
  4. Put your laundry on the main floor (definitely get it out of the basement!)
  • Make Safety a Priority – Think about your aging parents. What parts of their home make you nervous? The clutter, the dim lighting, the slippery bathroom? These may also become a safety concern for you one day. Examples:
  1. Get rid of throw rugs (they are very hazardous!)
  2. Place non-slip strips in the bath tub, the kitchen and on any outdoor or indoor stairways
  3. Install bright lighting inside and outside the home, and make sure switches are easy to use and access
  4. Rearrange your furniture so there is plenty of space to move around a room

There are many companies out there that will sell you some pretty sleek looking products. You definitely do not need to spend that kind of money, but I think some people fear their home will look like a hospital if they integrate basic universal design.  Just remember this is entirely up to you, your tastes and your budget. If you start planning for it now and modify your home over time the benefits could greatly outweigh the costs. Below are some resources if you are interested in learning more:

National Resource Center on Supportive Housing and Home Modification

  • Comprehensive list of online resources
  • Directory for finding services in your area

US Department of Health and Human Services

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