senior home care minnesota

Applying Universal Design to Age in Place

Tips for transforming a home so that you can live there comfortably and safely for as long as possible.

If you’re like most aging Americans, you want to grow old in your own home. Even so, not every home is suited to the special needs of aging.


What is Universal Design?
It’s a principle aimed at making buildings, environments and products accessible to the broadest possible population. It can be applied to everything from kitchen products to home design. The term was coined in the early 1980s by Ronald L. Mace, a wheelchair-bound architect, as: “The design of products and environments to be usable by all people to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”

Universal design is structured around seven core concepts, including things like flexibility and simplicity, which promote maximum safety and access for everyone — from youth through old age.

The Benefits of Universal Design
“People think of universal design as limited to those with disabilities, but it benefits everyone,” says Una Barrett, a gerontologist and owner of Positive Living Solutions. “It supports all ages and abilities, with an even broader objective extending to the design of everyday products, signage and in communications.”

In taking into account the largest possible spectrum of abilities and needs, universal design principles enhance efficiency, “shelf life” of a home, practicality, effectiveness and — ultimately — cost-effectiveness. These combined assets benefit everyone.

When it comes to your home, by investing from the onset in these forward-thinking design principles that promote access, you can ensure your comfort and safety over time — no matter how old you are.

When to Implement Universal Design
Barrett urges clients to consider whether their home can be adapted long before the need arises. The reality is that most homes aren’t designed with aging in mind and don’t meet standards to age in place safely. Consider universal design concepts when you’re planning redesigns — particularly to a bathroom or kitchen — or buying a new home.

Universal Design Principles
Whether buying a new home or retrofitting your existing residence, there are many universal design features to explore. Here are Barrett’s top 10:

  1. Entrances: At least one no-step entrance
  2. Halls: A minimum of 36″ wide hallways, with a full turn radius of five feet in the bathroom, kitchen, bedroom and office
  3. Doors: Doorways a minimum of 32″ wide (offset door hinges will add up to two inches to width)
  4. Floors: Smooth, slip-resistant, matte-finish flooring, 1/4″-1/2″ low-pile carpeting, without thresholds when transitioning between rooms
  5. Bathrooms: First floor bathroom with roll-in shower, a fixed detachable handheld showerhead and folding bench; toilet bowl 17-19″ high, placed a minimum of 18″ from the wall, with easy access to grab bars.
  6. Sinks: A roll-under wall-hung sink with a centered lever faucet in bathroom and kitchen, with open space underneath
  7. Grab bars: Professionally installed grab bars (you can find ones that are stylish and multipurpose, that incorporate towel and bathroom tissue holders) are most commonly used in bathrooms, but can and should be placed in other areas where extra supports might be needed, such as hallways or spots between rooms where someone might pause.
  8. Counters: Different counter heights in the kitchen, with D or loop-shaped handle pulls and roll-out shelves
  9. Lights: Rocker light switches, recessed lighting above cabinets and countertops, lots of ambient lighting throughout and as much natural light as possible
  10. Reach. A reaching distance of 15″ to 48″ is best for things like light controls, outlets, storage, shelving, telephone jack and Internet connections for comfort, convenience and to guard against falls or other injuries.

Start Thinking about Universal Design
If your home requires updating, look for a contractor who specializes in home adaption. The National Association of Homebuilders has a Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) program and a searchable directory of professionals, which is a great place to start.

Also consult with a gerontologist, occupational therapist or other senior care professional during the process, as they’ll be sensitive to the subtleties involved. Barrett recalls one client who’d had grab bars installed at the wrong angle and height, making them essentially useless as a safety measure.

Stehle also suggests that people pose “what ifs”: What if I’m in a wheelchair? What if my vision deteriorates? What if I can’t climb stairs safely? “Think and talk about different scenarios that may come about as a result of aging,” she says. “Considering the possibilities early on and being proactive will reduce stress, and perhaps the need for major changes, later.”

Looking Beyond Universal Design
But sometimes your current home simply isn’t practical for aging in place — no matter how many grab bars you add. It might be too difficult or impractical to modify the structure. So keep an open mind about your living arrangements.

“My mom is looking at ranches now,” Stehle explains. “You need to think about what will ultimately maximize your independence, comfort and safety — whether that is staying in your home, finding a new one or moving into a senior community.”