Home Sweet Home for Life

Adapting a home for aging in place is a sound investment—and a lot easier on maturing bodies.

 The designer considered flooring and furnishings when creating a first-floor master suite that can accommodate homeowners who might someday use a walker or wheelchair. For example, the carpeting is low pile with firm padding, which is ideal for wheelchairs, and the chairs in the reading nook are firm and easy to get out of. Photograph by Thom ThompsonWhen the toilet in her powder room broke, the owner was thrilled. It meant she could replace it guilt-free with the same type of elevated toilet as in the bathroom of a first-floor master suite that she and her husband had recently added to their North Wilmington home. The addition was intended to free up space for visiting family, but more important, it was designed to accommodate the couple should their mobility someday become limited.

“His parents both ended up in wheelchairs, and he fears the same could happen to him,” the owner says. The addition, completed a year ago, includes an oversized bedroom with sitting area, a large bathroom suite with walk-in shower and separate toilet room, two walk-in closets, an office and a laundry room. It connects to the original living area through an attractive vestibule with bookshelves and storage areas for the grandchildren’s toys.

“If we ever needed to, we could live comfortably entirely on the first floor,” she says.

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That’s because Rita Wilkins, president of Design Services in Wilmington, used elements of universal design throughout the addition, from little touches like elevating the front-loading washer and dryer to making hallways and doorways wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair. Because the front door is approached via several steps, the addition also has a separate entrance from the driveway that can be ramped if necessary.

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Universal design refers to design of products and environments to make them accessible to and usable by people of all ages, sizes and abilities. The concept dates to the 1970s, but as baby boomers age, it has become increasingly prevalent in both renovations and new construction.

Universal design allows older people to remain in their own homes longer, or to “age in place,” but because the design is so attractive and practical, it is appreciated by people of all ages.

The bathroom features a walk-in shower and vanities that are set at different heights to accommodate a person in a wheelchair or someone who finds it difficult to bend. Photograph by Thom Thompson“Some of the elements are things you’d find in luxury hotels,” Wilkins says, “like walk-in showers, anti-scald faucets and phones in the bathroom.” If it became necessary, handrails and a seat also could be installed in the couple’s new shower.

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Some of the vanities in the bathroom are 38 inches high, about six inches higher than normal, so that users do not need to bend over as far, but one of the vanities is lower than normal so that someone in a wheelchair could use it. For now, the owner enjoys being able to sit down while putting on her makeup.

The new bedroom measures 15 by 22 feet, with an alcove sitting area that adds another 3 feet to the width. It opens through a sliding door onto a tranquil backyard garden. The 10½-foot ceiling not only makes the bedroom feel larger and more open, it allows for elegant yet practical architectural elements such as cove lighting and transom windows that let in natural light.

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“We have so much light that sometimes I feel like I’m in a television studio,” the owner says. But she appreciates all the options. The study, for example, has overhead lighting on a dimmer switch, a desk lamp, task lighting and natural light from a window. In addition to electric lights, the owner’s closet has a large window with a seat, where she can sit to put on her shoes. His closet does not have an exterior wall, so it has a skylight instead.

“Extra lighting is important because as we age, our vision deteriorates,” Wilkins says. But who wouldn’t like more light in the closet? And that’s the point of universal design. When and if the owners decide to sell their house, no one will know the addition was designed to accommodate aging in place, Wilkins says. “They would just say, ‘Wow, what a great master suite.’”

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Universal design is not for new construction and additions only. Done right, an aging-in-place renovation can look attractive and add resale value while making the home easier and safer to live in. “With the housing market the way it is, many people are being forced to stay in their home, so they are renovating,” Wilkins says.

Stairs are one of the primary concerns among homeowners with mobility issues. In many cases, a bedroom can be added onto the home’s first floor. When it comes time to resell, that bedroom can remain a first-floor master bedroom, or it can be restaged for showing as an office or playroom. But it is not always necessary to add a room or convert an existing first-floor room into a bedroom. “Instead, if there are closets on the first and second floors that line up vertically, an elevator can be installed,” Wilkins says.

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An elevator requires a space about 5 feet square, according to Dan Hartnett, whose company, Silverside Contracting, Inc., did the home addition. Hartnett recently completed a 12-by-14 foot, three-story addition on a Newark home to add a small amount of living space, plus an elevator that goes from the basement to the second floor, where the homeowners, Steve Masters and Margaret Sarner, have their bedroom.

Like the rest of the new space, the office is well-lit with electric and natural light. Photograph by Thom Thompson“Neither of us is getting any younger, and Margaret has problems with her knees,” Masters says. “But we didn’t relish the idea of having to move just because we can’t do stairs anymore, so we decided to put in the elevator.”

Masters says he and Margaret love the location of their home, which is “kind of in the woods” in an area near Del. 72 and Possum Park Road. “We can sit on the porch and see deer going through the yard, and a family of foxes lives nearby,” he says.

Hartnett often builds additions that add a first-floor master bedroom to a home. “A lot of people are just comfortable in their homes. They choose to put money into their existing home rather than move elsewhere,” he says.

People should realize that getting older does not mean they have to leave the home and the neighborhood they love, Wilkins says. Adaptations both large and small can be made to make a person’s present home more livable as they age. Handrails can be added to stairs and hallways to help a person balance. Grab bars can be installed near tubs and toilets.

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Older adults and those with certain health issues can find it challenging to bend and reach, so counters, light switches, thermostats and electrical outlets can be moved to easier-to-reach heights. Electrical outlets, for example, are typically 18 inches off the floor, but 27 inches works much better for someone in a wheelchair. Thermostats and light switches can be lowered to 42 inches from the floor. Traditional light switches can be replaced by rocker switches, which are often used in new construction.

Storage areas can be adapted to be more accessible in kitchens, bathrooms, closets and offices. Again, some changes, such as replacing the shelves in cabinets with roll-out trays, can be appreciated by anyone of any age who has ever had to get down on his knees or up on a step stool to root around in a cupboard for an item. Cabinet knobs can be replaced with easier-to-grip D-shaped handles.

One of the walk-in closets includes a large window seat where the owner can sit to put on her shoes. Photograph by Thom ThompsonCabinets can be added in the space between the kitchen counters and the upper cabinets, for more storage space at an easy-to-reach height. And some or all of the counters can be lowered to an accessible desk height of 30 inches instead of the standard 36 inches, Wilkins says.

Lever faucets are easier to use than handles that must be turned. Wilkins also suggests installing a faucet and spray hose near the stove, so the homeowner can fill a pot with water on the spot instead of needing to carry it across the room from the sink.

When Wilkins designed the North Wilmington home, she also put thought into what flooring and furnishings would work best for the homeowners as they age. The chairs in the bedroom reading nook are firm and easy to get into and out of. The bedroom carpeting is low pile with firm padding, which makes it easier to navigate when using a walker or wheelchair. Transitions between different types of flooring are clearly demarcated by contrasting colors.

From floor to ceiling, furnishings to hardware, the new master-suite is designed so the owners can grow older in comfort and style. “People are so concerned that if they adapt their home so they can age in place, it will look like a hospital room,” Wilkins says, “but if it’s done right, you don’t notice that any of these things are there.” Instead, it looks stylish—and just like home sweet home.

To learn more about universal design, visit delawaretoday.com, then click “Infusion Design Home.” 

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