There is much talk in the news about how older people should be encouraged to downsize their home. Downsizing means different things to different people. For some it means having less house and yard maintenance, for others it means moving to a smaller dwelling.
However, recent research has shown that many older people are happy with their home and have no intention to move or to downsize. Once people leave the workforce, spare rooms for hobbies and other activities become more important. So unless you live in a large home, downsizing to a smaller living space might not be the answer.
Moving from a house with a garden to an apartment block sounds like the perfect solution for downsizing maintenance and living space. It can also be the answer to minimising or eliminating steps into the apartment, although some blocks still have steps to the main entry.
However, if you want to remain in your current home, you may want to consider some renovations to make your home more comfortable.
Whether you want to stay put and renovate, or move elsewhere, there are some design features that are worth thinking about.
Steps and stairs
When thinking about accessibility issues, most people immediately think about steps and stairs.
Ramps are not always attractive at the front of the house unless they can be properly built or landscaped to look integrated. Maybe there is another entrance, say from the garage or from the rear of the property that would work better both functionally and aesthetically.
Decking is a good way of achieving level access to outdoor areas and entertaining spaces. It can be built up over existing concrete or paving to minimise steps and hobs.
A step-free shower recess is a must with a semi frameless shower screen. The screen can be removed at a later date if you need more space to move around. Will there be enough room in the shower to sit on a shower stool if you get sick and a bit unsteady on your feet?
A small grab bar is handy to assist with bending to wash the lower legs and feet, or to retrieve the dropped soap bar. It can also assist with standing up from a shower stool if you should ever need it.
Consider a cantilevered vanity with space underneath for your feet if you need to sit while drying your hair or shaving. Lever taps are also great for easy use.
If you ever need a hip or knee replacement you will probably find an over the toilet frame very useful. It raises the height of the seat and gives you armrests to push up from during the rehab phase. Check that the placement of the toilet pan will allow for an over-the-toilet frame.
If you are doing a major bathroom renovation, also think about the amount of circulation space a carer might need to assist you in the bathroom should you ever need it.
Doorways can be a problem if you ever need to use a wheelie walker or crutches at home. Many older homes have doors as narrow as 770mm, so where major renovations are being considered increase the doorway size to a minimum 820mm.
A small point, but a wider doorway is less likely to suffer bumps and scratches on the paintwork than a narrow doorway.
Door handles and light switches should be around waist height for a standing person so they can be reached from a sitting position as well. Lever handles are easier to grasp than round ones.
If you have a two storey home there are three options to consider. Design the main entry level floor to have provision for a bedroom and a full bathroom at a later stage even if you don’t want it now.
Alternatively, home elevators are becoming more popular particularly in cities where house prices and stamp duty make the cost of installation more attractive. Check to see what structural provisions are needed when renovations take place so an elevator can be installed later.
The third option is a stair-climber device. This is a motorised seat that travels up and down a rail installed on the staircase. This option has its limitations as not everyone feels safe on the device and if you have arthritis in the hips, the jarring motion for stops and starts can be painful. If you use a mobility device it would have to be carried up by someone else, or you would need two – one at the top and one at the bottom. Not all staircases are structurally suitable for this option.
The kitchen is another area where details become important. Newer kitchen designs feature storage drawers instead of cupboards. It means everything comes to you and you don’t have to bend to dig around at the back of the cupboards.
There is one place that needs a cupboard – the kitchen sink. Install 180 degree hinges on the doors so they fold back. This means you can sit on a stool to prepare food and put your feet and knees in the cupboard space.
A pull-out work board fitted like a drawer under the work bench can be useful when placed at a height for sitting. Children also find this handy if helping out in the kitchen.
Finally, think about the general space around the furniture in all your rooms. If you should ever need to use a wheelie walker for safety, would you be able to get around your bed and to your wardrobe, for example? Avoid creating awkward corners, corridors or hallways that might restrict your movement?
To find out more information about these details, a great place to start is the Livable Housing Design Guidelines. This document provides a nationally consistent and practical guide to making homes safer, more comfortable and easier to access for people of all ages and abilities.
A full copy of the Guidelines can be downloaded from http://www.livablehousingaustralia.org.au
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