Living Gracefully

As baby boomers age, so will their homes, but that does not mean a house must grow weary and worn. Or, more frighteningly, become an unsafe place to live.

Instead, homes can be streamlined and retrofitted to achieve a universal design that is safe for an aging population while still being suitable for the grandkids who drop by.

Called “aging in place,” the concept of modifying a home so it becomes adaptable to an older population, has gained momentum as boomers make up a higher percentage of America’s senior citizens and hope to stay longer in their own homes.

A report from the Center for Housing Policy estimates that between 2010 and 2050, the number of people aged 65 and older will rise from one in 7.7 people to one in five, a 120-percent increase.

Every year, one in three adults 65 and older falls, and half of those falls occur at home, according to the housing report, citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But universal design, especially in kitchens and bathrooms, can help keep seniors safe while maintaining an aesthetic that blends with their homes.

“Everyone wants to stay in their home,” says Michael Merrill, principal of Michael Merrill Design Studio in San Francisco. “No one looks forward to a nursing home or assisted living if they have the possibility of being in a home they feel safe in, comfortable in, familiar in and that is not a big burden.”

For the bathroom of a man who, Merrill says, “if he fell one more time, he would be paralyzed for life,” Merrill installed a single marble slab with a low curb and sanded it down so water would drain to the center. “You feel very solid and sure-footed on that stone,” Merrill says. “As an aesthetic choice, it was beautiful.”

A folding bench in the shower made of chrome, mahogany or teak can provide added safety. Merrill also suggests wall mounts for toilets and sinks so the height can be customized for the homeowner. 

Nancy Barisof, the owner of Barisof Interior Design in Seattle, says for older clients, she suggests putting the proper blocking in bathroom walls for installing grab bars. “In the past, people thought of grab bars as what you see in hospitals, but there are a lot of really beautiful grab bars that can double as towel bars and can withstand weight,” Barisof says.

For the kitchen, she suggests installing cabinets with shelves that can be pulled down for easy accessibility. Installing a shelf a few inches below upper cabinets also can make dishes and bowls easier to reach while increasing storage capacity.

Judd Lord, director of industrial design for the Delta Faucet Co., Indianapolis, pointed to the company’s kitchen faucets with Touch2O technology. A tap anywhere on the faucet unleashes a flow of water. This design, he says, “is ideal for people who may have mobility issues or trouble reaching the faucet handle,” adding that the ability for temperature to be adjusted above the deck can help children who can’t reach the handle.

If, like most faucets, the one you choose is not automatic, Barisof suggests choosing one that can be controlled by a single lever. A litmus test is whether you can turn it off and on with one closed fist.

Lord says pot fillers are popular features. Positioned on the wall behind the stove, the jointed faucet eliminates the walk from sink to stove while carrying a heavy pot of water.

Barisof added that painting stair risers a different color can help prevent tripping, as can marking the edge of each step with a tread or other visual cue.

All of the improvements that can help people stay in their homes longer, Barisof says, “gets them to feel independent in a safe and comfortable environment.”