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Homing Instincts: How Universal Design Outfits Homes for Life

If home is where you’d like to stay during the golden years, you may need to invest in a slight remodel to make your home easier to live in as you age. In recent years, architects, contractors and builders have begun developing standards known as “universal design,” a design approach to space that makes rooms more navigable for the elderly, the disabled, those with small children, and those who use walkers, canes and wheelchairs to move around. According to Kansas State University, three of the most important elements of universal design are an entry without steps, a “usable” bathroom (with grab bars or enough space to maneuver a wheelchair or walker), and doors and hallways with a minimum of 32 inches width.

However, these features alone don’t mean a home offers “universal design.” Kansas State University offers an extensive checklist of universal design features for all parts of the home: http://www.humec.kstate.edu/atid/udf/ud_checklist.html. Some of these details–lowering counter heights, moving electrical outlets up from the floor so you need not bend low to use them–may require professional installation. Others, however, such as installing additional phone lines, using an alarm system, and creating “maneuvering spaces” within the kitchen or entry are easy and may mean remodelers need do little more than call a phone or alarm company or rearrange furniture.

Here’s a summary of universal design tips:

  1. Create maneuvering space

One of the main principles of universal design calls for creating “maneuvering space” for people who use assistance (wheelchairs, walkers, canes). This is particularly important in a home’s entry, where many universal design specialists recommend a five foot by five foot area. But such pace is also important in rooms like the kitchen and bathroom as well as in the laundry area, where space is necessary both for convenience and also safety.

  1. Make drawers, outlets and appliances easy to reach

Universal design-minded remodels often involve lowering counter heights in kitchens and bathrooms so that surfaces are more accessible. Front load washers and dryers, moved preferably to the ground floor, are also typically easier to reach for the elderly or disabled. By installing wall outlets above the floor (rather than close to the floor), those who must reach from wheelchairs or bend with the aid of a walker are less likely to fall. In the kitchen, and in other areas of the house with lots of cabinetry, retirees may want to use “D-shaped” drawer pulls which are among the easiest to open.

  1. Emphasize safety

Aside from creating the proper maneuvering space, homes with universal design often feature overhangs, awnings, or garage entrances to protect against slippery or wet surfaces that can result in bad weather. A home alarm system, a bathroom emergency phone, and lights activated by motion, voice or timers, are all among features common in universal design homes.

  1. Create a navigable bathroom

The bathroom is a particularly dangerous space in any household – it’s a room where running water, electrical outlets, and hard slick surfaces all coexist. For those who must be careful to maintain their balance or use assists to maneuver, the bathroom is a particularly tricky room. Universal design principles frequently recommend creating a wide bathroom, and replacing a tub with an easy-to-enter shower. By installing assist bars in the shower (or tub, if you keep one) and near the toilet, it’s safer and easier to lower oneself into the bath water or onto a toilet seat.

 The AARP (www.aarp.org), the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging (www.aahsa.org), and the Assisted Living Federation of America (www.alfa.org) also offer information and ideas on aging in place–including universal design features as well as additional easy fixes that can turn a home into a senior-safe residence.