Q. My husband and I are in our 50s. We want to build a house that we can stay in as we age. I remember how difficult it was for my mother to leave her house. Is universal design the answer for us?
Leaving one’s home after many years can be very difficult and emotionally painful. You can generally find someone to do the landscaping and cleaning. The reason most seniors have to leave is problems with accessibility and mobility.
Problem areas typically are stairs between floors or just a step or two from one room to another. Another common problem is reaching cabinets above a kitchen countertop. As you age, you shrink and lose the ability to stretch. A standard bathtub or even a shower stall with a raised edge can be difficult to enter or impossible if you are in a wheelchair.
Universal design can be a solution. It considers everyone – seniors, people with disabilities, children, etc. For example, a child often cannot access items in tall cabinets. A step at the edge of a shower can be a spot where anyone can stumble immediately after awaking in the morning.
Even if you do not end up staying in your home as you are planning, having a universal design makes your house attractive to a larger group of potential buyers. Older couples are often the best buyers when they have some savings or pay cash. With proper initial design, the cost of adding universal features will not be significantly higher.
At least one bathroom should have a shower stall with no step to enter it and should be large enough to accommodate a wheelchair. Install adequate grab bars throughout the bathroom. Don’t worry about the room looking like a hospital. There are many fashionable designs available.
The kitchen is also an area that should get attention. Standard-height countertops can be difficult for someone who has reduced mobility or is in a wheelchair. Consider installing countertops at two different heights, with a sink in each. Locating the cooktop and oven in an island can increase accessibility. Strong concrete countertops can be used with decorative wooden-edge trim. The trim can be heavy and designed to also function as a grab bar. Also, install handles on the drawers that would allow someone with severe arthritis to open them.
Homes are typically designed with a window over the sink and cabinets high over the countertops. A better universal design would be lower cabinets above and behind the sink, with the windows above that reach to the ceiling. The same is true for cabinets above the rest of the countertops.
Consider providing space for an elevator in two-story homes: small units about the size of an average closet. Until you need one, this area on both floors can be used as closets.