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By: Lynette Evans
Will you be able to live the rest of your life in the home you currently occupy? We’re not talking about if you get run over by a bus tomorrow, but if you live to be 85 or 90, or even 100. For that matter, what if you do get hit by a bus but you only break your leg? How friendly will your house be then?
Barrier-free is a term architects and designers use about spaces designed for the handicapped. But since most products are designed to be accessible to able-bodied 18-year-old males, the rest of us are “handicapped” in some way or other.
Baby boomers are already paying the price for loud rock ‘n’ roll music, (The first boomer President, Bill Clinton, needed hearing aids at age 51, the result of loud music in his youth, according to his doctors). Stiff joints don’t wait for age 90 but plague athletes in their 40s and 50s. And no matter your age, if you are short, you can’t reach the top shelves of the kitchen cabinets.
You’d never know it from the sunken living rooms, hard-to-work doorknobs and hazardous bathtub shower enclosures featured in developer homes, but many architects and designers are focusing on making our living spaces support rather than hinder us as we grow older and, perhaps, more frail.
“Even though disease is not inevitable as you age,” says designer Rosemary Bakker, who specializes in design for older adults, “invariably some physical changes will occur … arthritis, less acute vision and other impairments are common ailments for most people toward the end of a lifetime, however long that lifetime may be.
“Health limitations are scarcely a reason to cut back on any activities that give you enjoyment in life,” Bakker concluded in “Elder Design: Designing and Furnishing a Home for Your Later Years (Penguin, 1997), “but it is reason to create a living environment that can accommodate any existing limitations or those you anticipate later.”
You don’t have to build a new home, or even do extensive remodeling to make your home more user-friendly. Using Bakker’s principles for good design, the following tips can make a difference in any home.
Make your home barrier-free.
Remove clutter along stairways and hallways and space furniture so you can move easily around it. Tape area rugs down to prevent tripping or, better yet, take them up altogether. Get rid of extension cords you could trip over and remove floor sills that can cause tripping. Make a downstairs bathroom accessible with a roll-in shower.
- Add supports where needed.
Most older people are not wheelchair-bound. The frail elderly may move slowly, may sometimes use a walker or cane, may shuffle, and may need something to steady themselves against.
To prevent falls. Keep steps in good repair, remove thick carpeting from stairs and install railings on both sides. Secure grab bars to walls of shower stalls, bathtubs and around toilets. Make sure bathroom and kitchen floors are nonskid.
Plan for communication from every room, including bathrooms, either via cellphone or telephone jacks for land lines.When replacing appliances, buy those with automatic shut-off switches. Make sure smoke detectors work and, if your hearing isn’t good, opt for detectors that flash warning lights.
- Turn up the lights.
Because older eyes take longer to adjust to changes in light levels, make sure lighting is even between rooms and hallways. Add wattage—or new fixtures, if needed—to porch and outdoor lighting as well. One inexpensive torchere with a protective top cover can brighten an entire room. Nightlights, even the plug-in kind, work well in bedrooms, baths and hallways. Make sure you have three-way switches at stairways and switches at the entrance to every room, so you don’t have to walk into a dark room. Install a waterproof light in the shower.
- Minimize the effort.
Waning strength and inability to grasp small objects are problems that accompany aging, even for people without arthritis, which can make manipulating small objects and opening cabinets impossible.
Door knobs and latches that require thumb and finger strength are hard for many older people to use. Select lever handles that can be operated with the elbow by an elderly person with arthritic fingers—or by a young parent with a bag of groceries in one arm and a baby in the other.
For cabinets and drawers, look for big, fat handles you can slip your hand through or that can be operated at a touch.
- Use color effectively.
You don’t have to be 80 to need reading glasses or be bothered by glare, but by age 80, our eyes take in as little as 20 percent of the light they did when we were 20. If your house seems dimmer than it did a few years ago, add light and beef up the color contrasts.
Walls should contrast with floors, edges of top and bottom steps should be highlighted, bath fixtures should contrast with the floor and furniture should contrast with the background in the room.
(Note: This story is updated from a story that was originally published in The San Francisco Examiner and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in July 1998.)