5 steps to adapt your home as you age

Published: April, 2014

Modifying doorknobs, doorways, and railings now will help you live there longer.

Photo: Thinkstock

Switching out a round doorknob with a lever
handle helps when dexterity diminishes.

When you choose a place to live, you might give a lot of weight to the home's appearance and size. But how much consideration do you give to safety factors that can help you live there as you age? The impressive entryway or tiled bath that inspired you to buy the home in the first place may become a problem when you can no longer open a heavy door or navigate slippery tile without support. "People don't think about those things when they're healthy. Sometimes that winds up forcing them out later on," says geriatrician Dr. Suzanne Salamon, an instructor at Harvard Medical School. But you can adapt your home to your changing needs. Consider following these five steps now, before you're struggling in a home that no longer serves you.

1 Make a budget

A budget in the thousands will be necessary for architectural changes such as widening doorways for wheelchairs. While expensive, that kind of investment may be more appealing to some people than selling their home and buying another. If you're not in a position to spend thousands on renovations, there are plenty of do-it-yourself fixes that will help you age in place. And if you're unable to make the changes yourself, you can hire a handyman to do the work. The national referral service Angie's List reports average handyman fees run $60 to $85 per hour, plus the cost of equipment that you'll be installing. Spending on these types of modifications will run in the hundreds of dollars, and can be done gradually.

2 Go for easier entry

Older adults lose dexterity in their hands, which can make it tough to turn a round doorknob. Simple fix: install lever door handles that require only a push downward. Prices start at about $7 for an interior door handle to $50 for an exterior door handle. If using keys is a challenge, purchase a lever handle with a push-button lock for about $100. If you're using a wheelchair or walker, you may need a small ramp to get over the threshold or lip of a doorway. These can be purchased at hardware stores for about $100. Widening a doorway and adding long ramps to fit over stairs in and out of a home will require a contractor.

3 Modify the kitchen

Kitchen storage should be low when you're older. "I have seen so many accidents where people try to reach for cans of food on high shelves, or stand on stools to reach something and fall," says Dr. Salamon. Rearrange your pantry so that food and cooking utensils are on lower shelves. Invest in lighter-weight pots and pans to accommodate strength loss in your arms. A contractor can lower countertops and cabinets for people who are in wheelchairs.

4 Alter bathrooms

Slick bathrooms are the cause of many falls and injuries. Nonstick mats and treads will help give you traction on slippery tile and bathtub surfaces. Grab bars (about $25 each) are especially helpful if you have balance issues. Install them in shower, tub, and toilet areas. Consider a threshold ramp on a shower lip to make entry safer. A contractor can replace a tub with a walk-in shower and switch out a standard toilet for a taller one (making it easier to sit and stand up). Or you can adapt an existing toilet by installing an elevated seat for about $40. Plastic shower seats are also helpful and range from $30 to $100.

5 Adapt bedrooms

If your bedroom is located upstairs, think about moving to the first floor. The bedroom should be located near a bathroom. Since you may be spending more of your time in a darkened bedroom, install automatic nightlights in electrical outlets and rocker switches for lights that are simple to push on and off. If you do have to travel upstairs to a bedroom, make sure there are handrails to help you keep your balance, or have a contractor install a motorized lift, often called a stair glide. Prices for stair glides start at about $1,500. 

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