Make Sure Your Home Can Change As You Do

Home sweet home! No one expects a simple turn of events or our changing lives to suddenly make our home sweet home become a barrier to our comfort and peace of mind. Unfortunately that is typically what can happen if we are not aware of the possibility of change and if we're not prepared to deal with it. While our buildings are basically static, our lives are anything but.

Inset carpeting eliminates a change of height. (Picture courtesy of

As we get older our reaction times decrease and we are more prone to a loss of balance. A simple household stumble can result in broken bones that can turn into a serious debilitating injury.

Take time to inventory your surroundings and try to identify those areas that could be a barrier or become a hazard. One of the biggest culprits for falls in the home is loose carpets or rugs. Make sure that throw rugs are removed or securely taped down with double sided tape. The same goes for any lamp or extension cords that might creep into our pathways.

When you can, use items in your room to your advantage. While chairs and sofas should be moved out of the flow of normal traffic, they can also be strategically placed to become convenient handholds while crossing the room. With little ingenuity, attractive handrails that look like simple chair rail molding can be fitted into hallways or other rooms.

If you have the luxury of remodeling or if you are considering building a new home, use your foresight to assure that there are no significant transitions between floors or floor coverings. The floor in the illustration above shows how carpeting can be inset to eliminate a change of height.

Lower cabinets and pull down shelves are two strategies to make kitchen supplies more accessible. (Photo courtesy of

Also think about the density of carpeting that you might choose. Use a denser pile that will not compress as much underfoot and provide an easier surface to navigate with a wheelchair or walker. And, make sure that you have at least one level entry into the house. This concept should be as common as curb cuts, which were originally considered as a simple handicap modification. Today they are taken for granted by everyone.

Kitchens are considered the heart or the house so that is where we are naturally going to be spending a majority of our time. Looking for potential barriers and doing something about them can minimize your risk of injury. Ideally, you should have no use for a ladder to reach items you may need, but if you absolutely have to use one, make sure that it is the type of stepstool with an extended grab bar. Handheld grabbers are available at most hardware stores that can also eliminate the need to climb.

Again, if you have the luxury of designing or remodeling your kitchen there are numerous solutions that provide transparent convenience as well as safety. Keep commonly used items at the most convenient height and incorporate slide out shelving that can be configured to house almost anything. In thinking ahead, the toe kicks on cabinets can easily be raised to accommodate the foot pegs on a wheelchair. This has almost no impact on storage but it allows a wheelchair user to more easily access the countertops.

Higher toe kicks can be designed as pull-out step stools. (Photo courtesy of

An ingenious use of these higher toe kicks is to turn them into drawers for larger, less used items or even as a step-stool. This is great for reaching the top shelf or having an area where the grandkids can stand at the counter and join you. While you are at it, why not drop the height of your cabinets a few inches closer to the counters or add shelf pull downs that are commercially available?

In an ideal world, we should be building homes without stairs or at least having the essential living areas on a single level. Stairs can not only be a barrier to our mobility, but they are a tremendous safety hazard in any home. At a minimum, make sure that there are sturdy handrails on both sides of the staircase.

Down lights with motion sensors can light your way without flipping any switches. (Photo courtesy of Emory Baldwin)

As our sharpness of vision decreases we need to be increasingly diligent to provide ample lighting. Simple down lights in the staircase will illuminate the stairs and motion sensing light switches will light your way without any action on your part. If the stairs are bare, make sure that there is some type of traction applied to eliminate slipping. Ideally, having contrasting colors to identify landings or distinguish steps from risers can be a huge help.

Unfortunately, our need to get up during the night can also mean navigating dark rooms or hallways. Motion sensing light switches or at least night lights should always be available to light our way in any room. If you don't have the ability to change your light switches yourself, there is a simple conversion available from Black and Decker that easily fits over your existing switches.

A simple device fits over a standard light switch to provide a nighttime motion sensor. (Photo courtesy of Black and Decker)

Finally, let's evaluate our bathrooms. Slick floors, loose rugs, you name it...most potential hazards you can name are probably in this room. Ideally we should design bathrooms that minimize our need to perform minor acts of gymnastics to take care of our needs.

Did you know that tiles are classified by different levels of friction?  Ask your tile store for something that won't create a skating surface when wet and make sure that you use a non-slip wax as you clean your floors. Stepless showers are happily becoming quite the design statement. Not only are they very attractive, but they provide barrier-free access regardless of your abilities.

Grab handles should be plentiful and they no longer need to give that institutional feel to the room. Manufacturers have caught on and are selling designer styled handles that can provide a multitude of uses. If you are installing any grab handles, make sure that they are firmly attached and not simply screwed into wall board. There are super anchors, available at any hardware store, specifically designed to support the weight of a falling body.

If you had the advantage of foresight again, make sure that bathroom walls are sheathed with plywood or at least strategically braced to accommodate grab handle attachment at some future date.

For more detailed information and resources, visit the Northwest Universal Design Council or ABLE Environments websites.

—Tom Minty, Advisory Council for Aging & Disability Services & Northwest Universal Design Council


Tom Minty is a member of the Advisory Council for Aging & Disability Services and the Northwest Universal Design Council. He is a Realtor for John L Scott and president of ABLE Environments, a company focusing on barrier free homes.