Our dwelling is called “home sweet home” for a reason. So it’s no wonder that for many of us, it’s where we want to laugh, cry, love and live for as long as possible.

Americans are embracing the concept of “aging in place” — continuing to live at home as we grow older, rather than entering a retirement home or other assisted-living situation. A 2018 study by AARP found that 76% of Americans age 50 or older would like to stay in their current home as long as they can. However, many houses are not built in ways that easily accommodate the needs of older residents, or those with special mobility needs.

This is where the idea of “universal design” comes in.

Universal design refers to the principle of crafting an environment or object so that it can be used by anyone, whatever their age or ability. It stresses flexibility, simplicity and equitable use. Examples of universal design include automatic doors, which make entering a building easier for everyone; lever-style door handles, which are easier to grasp than traditional doorknobs; and ramps, which are essential for wheelchair users and also useful for anyone who can’t or doesn’t want to use stairs.

If you’re considering staying put during your later years, applying the precepts of universal design to your home — whether it’s a house you already live in and plan to modify, or one you would like to buy for the express purpose of growing old there — can help you make aging in place a reality.

Adapting your existing home

Seattle architect and accessibility consultant Karen Braitmayer — who last year won the American Institute of Architects’ prestigious Whitney M. Young Jr. Award, which honors architects who embody social responsibility in design — emphasizes the importance of “having at least one floor of your home that somebody could enter and somebody could get around in using a mobility device.”

Braitmayer, a wheelchair user, understands the usefulness of universal design on both a personal and professional level.

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But she notes that you can age in place just about anywhere if you rethink how you live.

A main-level bedroom will be easier to access over time than one up or down a staircase. (Getty Images)
A main-level bedroom will be easier to access over time than one up or down a staircase. (Getty Images)

For example, Braitmayer says, if you currently live in a multistory home and sleep on one of the upper levels, you could move your sleeping space to the main floor by, say, converting an office to a bedroom.

If you choose to remodel your home to incorporate universal design principles with the goal of aging in place, “a house that has really good bones” is easier and cheaper to modify, Braitmayer says.

Lucy Johnson, an award-winning Seattle designer who has long been recognized for her emphasis on universal design, encourages homeowners to pay special attention to kitchens and bathrooms. “Those are the two rooms that require lots of decisions,” she says.

Johnson says that if one person in a home is in a wheelchair and another isn’t, you can have sinks at varying heights to serve their different needs. In one such home, she installed a vessel sink for the able-bodied person and a semi-recessed sink for the wheelchair user.

“It was a high-low kind of concept,” she says.

Counters are another feature that can be adapted for different people’s needs. Braitmayer points out that those who use wheelchairs need lower countertops than people who can stand, so installing countertops on multiple levels is a good option: For example, a wheelchair user could sit at the lower counter and do food-prep work while their partner stands at the higher one.

Those who depend on wheelchairs or walkers need lower countertops than people who can stand, so installing counters at multiple levels will have long-term advantages. (Getty Images)
Those who depend on wheelchairs or walkers need lower countertops than people who can stand, so installing counters at multiple levels will have long-term advantages. (Getty Images)

Having a stove or cooktop with controls on the side or the front, rather than at the back, is an important safety feature, Braitmayer adds. That way, you don’t have to reach across one or more hot burners to use a dial.

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Preventing falls is a key consideration — the National Council on Aging reports that falls are the most common cause of fatal injuries among older adults. Braitmayer emphasizes the importance of nonslip surfaces on the floor, especially in the bathroom and on the stairs.

It also pays to invest in excellent lighting. “I think lighting is important all throughout the house,” Braitmayer says, particularly for older residents, as people often need better light as they age.

Johnson recommends automatic lighting for ease of use. Setting up smart lighting can be a challenge, she says, but it pays off. “Once it’s set up and they can walk in the room and say, ‘Alexa, turn the lights on,’ or ‘Alexa, turn the lights off,’ ” it’s very helpful, she says.

In the bathroom, be sure to install a handheld shower wand, and consider converting bathtubs to walk-in showers, which are much easier to bathe in for anyone with mobility issues. “Anytime anyone has an accident or something, you wish you had a walk-in shower,” with a shower bench you can sit on, Johnson says.

Not all modifications to help you age in place are expensive or labor-intensive. Braitmayer suggests removing objects that might be trip hazards, such as loose area rugs; installing easy-to-grip handles on doors and drawers, such as loop handles instead of tiny knobs; and adding handrails on both sides of all stairways.

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And no matter your age or ability or tub style, grab bars are a plus in the shower or bath, because bathing surfaces can be hazardous for anyone.

“I think everybody benefits from having grab bars,” Braitmayer says. “It’s just slippery.”

Buying with aging in mind

If you’re looking for a home in which to age in place, think low.

“I would look for a house that has a no-step entrance, or a step that is less than 12 inches from the ground,” Braitmayer says. “Of course, the best is if you can find a house with hardly any level change whatsoever.”

Having a low threshold makes it easier to get up into the house, or to add a ramp from the ground to the entrance. Each extra inch of height matters, she says: “For every inch that you have to go up, you need a foot of horizontal length for your ramp.”

Braitmayer notes that a lack of steps isn’t just a must for those who use wheelchairs or other mobility devices: It’s highly useful for anyone. It makes getting baby carriages or strollers into the house much easier, for example. And just think about the last time you tried to move heavy appliances up or down even one stair.

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Of course, once you’re at the entrance, you still have to get in the door. And if the doorway is narrow, that can be a problem. Johnson urges people to look for a doorway that is at least 36 inches wide.

Make sure the home will let you carry out all of your necessary business on one level, without a need to go up or down.

“I would look for a full bathroom on the main floor,” even if it isn’t accessible already, Braitmayer says. “We can always expand it and make it accessible if you need.” Particularly useful is a full bath and master bedroom on the main floor: “That would be really great,” she says.

You have to be able to get around inside the home, so look for open concepts with wide hallways. “Wide open spaces, wide open doors are really conducive to aging in place,” Johnson says.

As we grow older, a ramp and handrails will make entering and leaving our homes much easier. 
A no-step entrance will help prevent tripping, and will allow a wheelchair to pass through smoothly. (Getty Images)
As we grow older, a ramp and handrails will make entering and leaving our homes much easier. A no-step entrance will help prevent tripping, and will allow a wheelchair to pass through smoothly. (Getty Images)

Johnson notes that homes built in the midcentury modern style are especially well-suited to aging in place: “That type of big, open plan … [tends] to work really well for wheelchair users.”

Happily, Seattle is a city with a relatively high number of midcentury-style homes. “We do have a lot of midcenturies here, so those work great for a lot of folks,” Johnson says.

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Braitmayer herself lives in a midcentury home, which attracted her with its one-step — almost no-step — entrance.

“It’s all one floor, which is a great advantage for us, and most of the doors have wider hallways,” she says.

But that doesn’t mean you must look for a midcentury house, Braitmayer emphasizes: “It’s not about style, it’s about it primarily being a one-story house.”

Finding a home that is accessible, easy to age in and with universal design features already in place is seldom a simple task, but Braitmayer hopes that will change.

“I would like it to be easier to find a universally designed home,” she says. “I think there’s an opportunity there. And I’d like to see younger families recognize the value in that.”