Aging In Place: Accessible Homebuying for the Long-Term
Aging is inevitable. We’d like to all believe in the life insurance commercial, where we’ll all be in our 70s, in great shape, lakeside in shorts with mint juleps in hand.
But it’s often not like that. Mobility issues are common, and degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s are now the fastest-growing diseases in America.
Whether it’s something as commonplace as arthritis getting in our way, or something more debilitating, the simple truth is that our homes can become our worst enemies if mobility issues decline.
Hope for the best, plan for the worst
And it’s not just the elderly who have to worry. I will never live in a walk-up apartment building again after having blown my back so bad once that it involved crawling up/down stairs for four weeks. Being incapacitated is humbling enough without being forced to crawl on stairs.
The old adage of “hope for the best, plan for the worst” is never more true than when it comes to choosing where you live, renting or buying, especially if you know degenerative issues are inevitable.
If that time comes, life will already have enough complications without your having to move from, or modify, your existing home. So what things should one look for if they’re hoping for the best and planning for the worst?
Entrances and in-home doorways are the most challenging part of mobility issues if they’re badly planned. Thresholds should be level so they don’t involve lifting legs over a rise, and are flat enough for electric scooters or wheelchairs to easily roll over.
Doorways should be wide so there’s never any difficulty navigating them. A wheelchair requires a 32” width for easy entrance.
Doors should be outfitted with levers. Knobs look lovely, but when you’re losing control of your hands or they’re becoming palsied, it can be incredibly hard to turn. Vancouver, Canada, is known for setting the standard in some construction trends, and the city has declared all permitted construction builds must feature levers on all doors to ensure maximum ease of use and accessibility for all, signalling a future perhaps in which doorknobs no longer play a role.
Flooring should be flush, the surface continuous throughout. The hall itself should be 42” wide to accommodate wheelchairs, but also look for the ability to make modifications for those who walk but with difficulty, via installing handrails, which can of course be installed in a variety of lengths.
Check under the kitchen sink. Could the base be cut out and doors removed, so a wheelchair could slide under? Is there a minimum of 40” between counters (or 60” in a U-shaped kitchen) so wheelchairs and walkers are usable?
The considerations for counters themselves gets awfully complicated, and it’s best you just go read the kitchen section here if it’s something you’re looking at adapting in the future for a wheelchair.
But some adaptations great for everyone, from folks with carpal tunnel syndrome and bad backs through to serious degenerative disorders, include:
- Use U-shaped drawer and cupboard pulls, because they’re easier for folks unable to get a good grip and cause less fatigue for the rest of us
- See you’ll be able to install lazy Susans and pull-out drawers and trays so there’s no need to go searching inside cabinets, but instead can pull the contents out to you
- Bonus points for heat-resistant counters next to the oven and range, since setting hot things down quickly and closely is important when you’re limited in range of motion
Bathrooms are the most important room to be safe in. A shower-in-tub-only situation is about as inconvenient as it gets once one is injured or declining. With just a blown back in my 30s I found my tub to be incredibly inconvenient, and even dangerous.
The ADA recommends a full 4-foot radius of open space in a bathroom. Railings on walls can be advisable for anyone who might feel unsafe in bathrooms where water can make flooring slippery and footing uncertain.
Which brings us to flooring. Look for floors that are rated to be non-slip. Some tiles are a nightmare as soon as water hits them, but others can be the difference between you getting hurt or staying upright.
Bathtubs are nice but they’re often not accessible. If it’s too narrow a tub, like the old ‘50s apartment-size tub I have, it can be very difficult to get out when you’re incapacitated even with something like a sore back. The ideal solution is a walk-in shower, especially if it has a comfortable seating area, and I don’t mean the 6”-deep “seat” some have, which are easy to slip off when they’re wet and you’re not a size zero. A shower stall with actual glass-or-otherwise walls/doors are often safest for anyone who might fall over. Railings here, too, are helpful, especially if it’s not an enclosed stall.
Levels and storeys
Obviously it’s hard to get homes that are a single floor and provide all the space you need. If you’re looking for a home with more than one level, keep it a simple up-down situation. Split levels mean you’re going up and down stairs repeatedly in the day. If you’ve ever had a blown knee or ankle or back, you’ll know that even one or two steps can be a very difficult challenge when you’re compromised.
So look for whole floors only, and then make sure you’ve got well-designed staircases. Stairs should be built to modern code for anyone with physical challenges. That is to say, according to California’s building code, your stairs should be 36″ wide with 80″ headroom, railings for anything more than a single step, and each step should be 7’75” high and 11″ deep.
Additional points for renters
Do extensive research on your building managers. Ask other tenants how issues are handled. My parents are in too bad of shape to get around these days and their terrible building managers keep letting their intercom break, so my parents have to go down to let them in. It took days to get the elevator working. We worry about them all because we can’t trust their building management.
Bad management can make your life hell in most circumstances, but if you’re mobility-impaired in any way, those inconveniences can really take your limitations to a new level.
Peace of mind goes a long way
No one likes to think that the future can come with dark twists and turns, or that our challenges will worsen. It’s not fun to plan for it, but this is why we buy health and home insurance. Looking at your dream home with optimism is something we all want to do, but life ain’t always an easy, predictable ride for any of us, and pragmatism goes a long way no matter who you are.
Making sure your home can be adjusted easily in the future, should things go awry, might prevent your dream home from becoming a nightmare — or, if you’re lucky and you stay healthy, it might keep your resale value high for when you want a new home just because you feel like it, not because you need it.