3 Aging in Place Renovations to Do in Order of Importance, According to the Pros

published Sep 20, 2022
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3 renovations you should do for aging in place, in order of priority
Credit: Photo: Shutterstock; Design: Apartment Therapy

When you’re young, you may not be thinking about what life at home might look like when you’re older — until necessity strikes. Maybe that’s an injury or onset of a chronic condition, an aging family member moving in, or your own years continuing their inevitable climb. 

Though we’re only 48 and 50 years old, respectively, my (half) joke with my husband is that we’ll stay in our three-story Victorian until we physically can’t any longer. But thanks to a growing awareness of the need to make our homes a place we can safely and comfortably live during later stages of life, it’s becoming more realistic to stay right where we want to be: at home.

Preparing your home for aging in place — whether for yourself or a loved one — isn’t an overnight project, of course. And rarely can you take on a renovation that addresses everything all at once. Implementing universal design features that are beautiful and functional can be done over several years, so that by the time they’re needed, everything is in place. 

To get some tips on how to prioritize renovation projects for aging at home, I spoke with a couple of leading experts across the U.S. Here are their top three recommendations for renovating your home to prepare for aging in place. 

Credit: Hendrickson Photography/Shutterstock.com

First, optimize your bathroom.

Priority number one is bathrooms, according to the experts. “You don’t know how important it is until you don’t have a functional space in that way,” says Lori Bellport, founder of Accessible Home Design Remodeling | Live in Place Designs.

Enabling people to use facilities independently and with privacy is key, says Shannon Guzman, the director of housing and livable communities for AARP’s Public Policy Institute. A bathroom that allows people at all stages of life (and with a variety of abilities) to use it doesn’t have to look like a clinical setting, she adds.

There are several aspects to a bathroom renovation that will equip it for universal use, according to Bellport. A zero-threshold shower accounts for any eventuality you may have with your health, Bellport says, by eliminating a step or curb and including an appropriate footprint for a wheelchair to turn around in. The shower should also include seating, ideally built in. A grab bar is a necessity, but that can be as simple as a towel bar (that’s reinforced!) in the right place, according to Guzman. 

The toilet, meanwhile, should be “comfort height” with an elongated seat, to make it easier to sit and stand. A reinforced grab bar here can also double as a toilet paper holder. A vanity can be modified to be open underneath, allowing a wheelchair to roll in. With that in mind, adding storage and easily accessible shelving elsewhere would be beneficial. A widened doorway that accommodates a wheelchair or other mobility aids is also key.

And because eliminating fall risks is a top concern, installing non-slip flooring is important. Having a bidet also offers a means to stay clean and hygienic without the need for a full-on bath or shower, Guzman adds. 

Credit: Cynthia Farmer/Shutterstock.com

Next, update the stairs and your home’s entry points.

Next up is how you get in and out of the house and between living spaces. To, again, remove the chance of falls, the second priority for renovation projects is to look at the entrance to the house and any stairs inside.

Outside, the decidedly non-curb-appeal-friendly metal ramp may come to mind when you think about accessibility, but that’s not the only option, according to the experts. A sloping walkway that integrates with the landscaping and complements the colors and materials of the house can be built. (Take a look at this ramp on a Victorian, for example!)

Danielle Hawkins and her husband, who uses a wheelchair, wanted their porch in Durand, Michigan, to be a space of acceptance and comfort for everyone. Although the ramp was built as a necessity, she says, "it has become a symbol of accessibility to our world."

Indoors, one approach is to transition to single-floor living with a bath and bedroom downstairs, or even reconstruct a banister to allow for a stair lift or elevator

Credit: Cathy Pyle

Then invest in the kitchen.

Finally, a well thought-out kitchen renovation can make for a space welcoming to all. Several components contribute to creating a space where people of all ages and abilities can spend time cooking and hanging out. (And honestly, many — if not all — of these adaptations would make life easier for anyone regardless of physical challenges or lack thereof.) 

Base cabinets should offer pull-out drawers that make it easy to grab things, rather than having to bend over and dig around for them. Upper cabinets, too, can be swapped for open shelves, or pull-down drawers. 

The sink should be open below (or at minimum have sliding pocket-style doors) to allow for a wheelchair or other equipment. At least one counter should be between 28 and 32 inches tall to allow someone to sit as they work.

To minimize burn risk, an induction cooktop is the way to go, and the microwave is best placed on the counter, not above the stove or in a drawer. A French door refrigerator with a pull-out freezer is the most accessible option, and a drawer dishwasher keeps a big dishwasher door from obstructing walkways.

The key to successfully creating a home where you can spend many more years comes down to planning. We’re all going to get older, if we’re lucky. Rather than waiting for an event that changes your world to be your wake-up call, as Bellport describes, doing the work before there’s a need could make the difference in having to move — and staying in your own home sweet home.