A good house for a young person is not necessarily a good house for an older person. But many people assume that making their home safer so that they can stay there longer means turning it into a virtual hospital with drab, obtrusive or clinical-looking fixtures and devices.
That’s not so! You can make renovations stylishly while stretching out the number of years you will be able to live at home independently. And you can do this at a cost that is much lower than the ongoing expense of shifting to assisted living. Focus first on choosing attractive but affordable products and design changes for the kitchen and bathrooms. (Injuries to older home owners are especially common in these rooms.)
Wet floors and hard surfaces make bathrooms dangerous. Smart ways to make bathrooms safer…
Put multiple night-lights in each bathroom. At night, using a bright light such as an overhead fixture can make it a challenge to get back to sleep. Night-lights placed in various locations around a bathroom will help your brain more easily sense the positions of walls, counters and fixtures relative to one another. Position one of these night-lights behind and below the toilet tank—if there’s no electrical outlet there, you could use a small, batterypowered, motion-sensing LED light, widely available for less than $20.
Select colors that provide a strong sense of where you are. Choose a toilet that’s noticeably different in color from the floor beneath it and the wall behind it. This makes it easier to get your exact bearings when sitting down to use it. Also, add a bright horizontal stripe of a contrasting color around the interior of the bathroom at a height of approximately five feet. This can be a row of tile, molding or even a stripe of paint. The contrast helps your brain determine how far away you are from the walls, so you’ll instinctively orient yourself.
Also, choose bathroom flooring similar in color to the flooring in adjacent rooms. Color contrast between room floors can create a visual “vertical cliffing”— the brain perceives a difference in floor height where none exists, perhaps leading to a fall. Prices could range from a few dollars for paint when you add a stripe by yourself…to a few thousand for a bathroom remodel that includes new tile and a new toilet.
Remount bathroom doors so that they swing outward. Most bathroom doors swing into the bathroom—but if you fall against the door, help cannot reach you. That won’t happen if the door opens out. Price: Several hundred dollars for a carpenter to modify the door frame and rehang the door.
Add a toilet seat that rinses and dries the user. Difficulty in using a toilet is among the leading reasons seniors move to assisted living. A toilet seat that rinses and dries the user at the push of a button makes toileting safer and easier. Many of these are heated. Example: Toto Washlet starts at around $450.
Also, if your current toilet seat is only 15 inches high, replace it with one that is 17 to 19 inches high. These can be easier to sit down on and get up from.
Add wall lights next to your bathroom mirror. Older people often lean in to get closer to bathroom mirrors not because the mirrors are too far away—but because the room is too dim to let older eyes see. This can cause off-balance falls. Add lighting fixtures with bright bulbs next to your mirror. Appropriate fixtures cost as little as $20. Expect to pay an electrician a few hundred dollars to install them. If you don’t want to add new lighting fixtures, buy a wall mirror with builtin lights.
Use slip-resistant flooring. Before buying flooring, check how it scores on the Dynamic Coefficient of Friction (DCOF) AcuTest, the standard for measuring flooring slip-resistance. The flooring retailer and/or manufacturer should be able to provide this figure. A score of 0.42 or higher is considered acceptable for level interior floors that might be walked on when wet—the higher the number, the less slippery the floor. If you can’t find an official DCOF rating for the flooring you are considering, at least run your hand along a piece of the flooring—the rougher it feels, the more slip-resistant it is likely to be. Also, do this hand test while the flooring sample is wet. Having the floor retiled in a typical bathroom likely will cost $1,000 to $2,000 including labor.
Have a no-step shower installed, so you can walk into the shower without stepping over the stall-shower “curb” that can cause trips. No-step showers used to be pricey custom jobs, but now there are kits that contractors can install for no more than the cost of a typical shower—expect to pay $3,000 to $5,000. Example: QuickDrain USA makes an excellent system that includes a linear drain that spans the entrance of the shower to prevent water from escaping.
Replace cabinet and drawer knobs with “D” or “C” handles. These loopshaped pulls are easier to grasp than knobs. They’re also less likely to cause falls by snagging clothing. New handles cost as little as a few dollars apiece and could replace knobs in other parts of the home as well.
Install LED lighting in multiple spots. This is an inexpensive, attractive and easy way to help orient you. LEDs have become common under upper kitchen cabinets, but don’t stop there— add them under the lips of countertops and/or under the lower cabinets in the “toe kick” area near the floor. LED lighting is available online or in home stores for as little as $2 per foot. Power cords can be run up into the cabinets so that they aren’t obtrusive, ideally to an outlet hidden inside the cabinet. Pay an electrician a few hundred dollars to add these outlets and lights if necessary.
Upgrade window coverings. Bright, kitchens are great—except when the sun glares off shiny kitchen surfaces. That’s as disorienting as having a camera flash go off in your eyes, and old eyes are much more vulnerable to glare than young eyes. If glare is an issue in your kitchen, put up blinds or drapes that do a good job blocking sunlight or, better yet, install automated window blinds and shades that close and open at the touch of a button. Example: Pella Insynctive Designer Series features automated shades sandwiched between the panes of multipane windows. For prices, contact your nearest Pella dealer at Pella.com…or hang better blinds or drapes for less than $100.
Add pull-down storage that provides safe access to high cabinets. Storing items no lower than your knees and no higher than your nose is an effective way to avoid falls. But it isn’t always practical to leave high and low shelves empty. Instead, you can install pull-down systems inside upper cabinets—these devices hide behind cabinet doors but bring the contents of high shelves down to you at the gentle pull of a handle. Example: Rev-A-Shelf Pull-Down Shelf prices start at $588.
Install an induction cooktop. With this type of cooktop, only the cookware and the area immediately beneath it heats up, and heating stops automatically when cookware is removed from the surface. These reduce the chances of burned hands and house fires caused by accidentally leaving stoves on. Examples: Three- and fourinduction- burner cooktops are available from Miele (prices start at about $2,999) and GE Monogram (prices start at about $2,600).
Select nonglare countertops that contrast with cabinets and flooring. Matte-finish countertops minimize kitchen glare. Also, contrasting colors help the brain register the edge of the counter. Example: Cosentino Silestone quartz-based countertops can be ordered with a matte “Suede” finish. These are durable and elegant and cost around $60 to $140 per square foot installed, which will come to a few thousand dollars and up for a typical kitchen.
Raise appliances off floor level. Have the dishwasher positioned with its bottom rack approximately 22 inches above the floor level so that it can be loaded and unloaded easily. That typically means raising a section of the kitchen counter as well—it’s actually nice to have a raised counter section for certain tasks, so this is best tackled as part of a larger kitchen redo. An oven mounted in a wall so that you don’t have to bend helps, too. Opt for a microwave that sits on the countertop or in the wall rather than one mounted above the cooktop—reaching over a cooktop to insert or remove food can be dangerous. These changes typically are done as part of a kitchen remodel, which often runs $10,000 to $20,000 or more.