When buying a house, most of us are likely to think only about what is appealing to us at the time and what we can afford. We’re less likely to be thinking about whether we’ll be wheelchair bound when we’re older, or if there’s a chance that our parents might be living with us someday. In today’s reality, these are precisely the types of possibilities we should be considering. The old model of retiring and moving to the Sun Belt has is giving way to more and more people who are staying in their homes into their later years. Builders and architects are taking notice, and are increasingly implementing high-tech, user-friendly style and comfort in new house designs to better accommodate all ages.

So what does this mean for those who aren’t in the market for a new house? Fortunately, there are plenty of relatively inexpensive changes you can make to your current home to make it more accessible to residents of any age or level of mobility. If you are a baby boomer, you are most likely right at the stage in life when owners tend to do a little home renovation – typically once the kids leave the nest and as retirement approaches. Keep in mind that universal design isn’t just about wheelchair accessibility; it’s about stroller accessibility as well. Ensuring your home is user-friendly for everyone can bolster the resale value.

Take a walk around your home, and take note of what can be done to make it more user-friendly without breaking the bank. Here are some things to consider for future and present needs:

Accessibility Tips & Tricks

  • Replace door knobs with levers; levers can be pushed down, making it less cumbersome to go between rooms.
  • Consider installing a ramp to at least one entryway if one does not exist already. Often, the side door will be a less obtrusive and more affordable option. Building a wooden ramp can be very inexpensive, but be sure to apply slip resistant material. Mini ramps can be easily installed by gluing small wedges of wood or metal on high door thresholds.
  • Add brighter interior and exterior lights to ensure optimal visibility.
  • Add slip resistant materials to the walkways.
  • Consider replacing conventional light switches to easy-touch switches. While you’re at it, lower light switches to 42 inches off the floor and raise electrical outlets to 18 inches from the floor for increased accessibility.
  • Think about installing a few extra outlets for future technology needs, such as medical equipment.
  • Install a shelf near the entry where items can be placed when opening and closing the door.
  • 36 inch wide doors are optimal, but can require major remodeling. A zero threshold door may be a cheaper option.
  • Install grab bars in the bathroom around the shower, toilet and bathtub.
  • Replace gravel walkways with paving stones or cement.
  • Ensure stairs have handrails on both sides of the steps, inside and out.
  • If possible, widen stairways to a full four feet to accommodate a future chairlift. If this is not possible, consider at least making each step deep enough to accommodate your entire foot, add tread, or make the front edge of the step a different color (using two various shades of wood finish or adhesive strips).
  • Adjust the clothes rod in the closet to a maximum height of 54 inches for an easy seated position reach.
  • Allow a 32 inch path for a wheelchair and a five foot turning radius in rooms and hallways.
  • Transferring to a bed or chair that is the same height as the wheelchair is easier and safer than trying to transfer up or down. Attach blocks of wood to the legs of furniture to raise objects to the needed height.
  • Tub transfer seats can be helpful, but removing a tub altogether and replacing it with a shower is often the best option (and not as expensive as one might think).
  • Replace toilets with special units, or install raised seats.
  • Removing the vanity cabinet below the sink can provide wheelchairs with access, but ensure that the surrounding pipes are properly covered to prevent cuts and burns.

Remember that these changes can be implemented with style, and that in the long run you will save time, frustration and money. Some tasks can be a weekend ‘do it yourself’ project, while others may require a contractor to be completed properly. There are various reliable programs available to help ensure quality and affordability such as CMSS’s Senior Home Maintenance Program.

Carrie Robertson
Research & Community Education

Assisted Living for Dementia
Chicago Senior Services