Universal Home Design for Seniors

According to the CEUD (Centre for Excellence in Universal Design), universal design is “the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people, regardless of their age, size, or disability.” More and more homes and buildings are being built according to universal design, which is great news for seniors. Additionally, it is possible to make changes to your home, or your loved one’s home, which correspond with universal design principles and allow a senior to live at home for a longer time in a space that is safe and accessible. 

This post will review some of the key components of universal design, particularly those that relate to seniors. These points can be used as a starting point if you’re considering renovating your parent’s home, or as a list of items to look for if you’re selecting a new residence for an elderly family member – or even as you’re thinking about your own future. 

Lighting in Senior Homes

Our eyesight diminishes as we age, so it’s essential for seniors to have good lighting in their living spaces. Well-lit spaces have many benefits: not only do they help to prevent trips, slips, and falls, but they also allow seniors to continue to engage in tasks they enjoy like reading or doing puzzles.  

There should be relatively high-wattage light bulbs in all light fixtures, and extra attention paid to hallways or corners that don’t receive much light. It’s also a good idea to provide extra lighting in areas where the senior often completes tasks that might require more light, like reading. 

It’s also important to make sure there are windows to let in natural light, so your loved one can enjoy the benefits of vitamin D and a balanced circadian rhythm. 

Universal Design for Ease of Use

We lose dexterity as we age. To prevent daily tasks from becoming too difficult, it’s important to implement changes that allow seniors to move through their homes easily. 

Some of these features include: 

  • Lever door handles. Knobs can be hard to turn with arthritic hands; levers are much easier to use. 
  • Handrails. Handrails provide stability for seniors and help prevent falls. Handrails are particularly useful by chairs, in washrooms, and in stairways. 
  • Pull-out shelves. In kitchens, shelves that pull out allow much easier access to stored items. These decrease possible strains from reaching too far, and prevent seniors from having to bend too often. 
  • Faucets. In senior homes, faucets should pass the “closed-fist test,” meaning that they can be turned on and off with a closed fist. This is another adjustment that allows seniors with arthritis to independently use the features of their homes. 
  • Doorways. If possible, doorways should be a minimum of 36 inches wide. If the senior in the home is ever in a wheelchair, this will allow them space to move through the doorway without risking damage to the chair or doorframe.  

Designing or Renovating Senior Bathrooms

Re-designing a bathroom is one of the key components of implementing elements of universal design in a senior’s home. The bathroom is an area in which slips and falls tend to occur, so it’s a particularly important area to consider when a senior decides to age in place.

Larger bathrooms are ideal, because they allow room for a wheelchair, but even if extra space is not available, adjustments can be made to create safer bathrooms. 

To prevent slips, handrails or grab-bars are very useful. Another adjustment to consider is the addition of non-slip flooring, which will also reduce the risk of falls. 

The ideal shower for a senior will be curbless, meaning that your loved one can walk in without having the step over any barriers. Showers should also include a form of seating. You may choose to purchase a portable seat, or to install a bench directly in the shower. 

If a senior prefers bathing to showering, walk-in tubs are available. These can be installed directly over an existing bathtub, and may be very useful for a mobile senior, but as mobility decreases, these tubs can also present potential dangers. Be sure to think carefully about the possible pros and cons of a walk-in tub for your loved one. If a walk-in tub is not the right choice, a slide-in tub might be.  

Often, higher toilet seats are a good choice for seniors, as they are easier to use for a person with limited mobility – but be sure not install a toilet seat so high that the senior cannot keep their feet on the ground. A good rule of thumb to follow is that the height of the toilet seat and the height of a senior’s wheelchair should be about the same. 

Finally, it’s important to remember that the bathroom can pose another risk: burns. When designing or re-designing a bathroom, make sure that the hot and cold sides of taps are clearly labelled and colour-coded. If your loved one experiences forgetfulness, or has arthritic hands that make changing the temperature quickly difficult, you may want install a valve that will set a maximum temperature in order to minimize the risk of burns.   

Universal Home Design for Your Future

The elements of universal design aren’t just useful for your senior loved ones – they’re useful for you, too. As you help your parents or other relatives make adjustments to age in place, you’ve probably considered what that stage of life will look like for you. Thinking about universal home design now can make your own future much easier, and can improve your quality of life as you grow older. 

If you’re buying a new house, building a new home, or renovating, you might want to look into finding an architect or contractor with some knowledge about Universal Home Design, but even if you don’t, there are some principles of universal design that you can consider on your own. 

  • Single story living. Stairs are one of the biggest problems seniors face when they want to age in place. If you think you’ll want to stay in your home for the long term, a house without a second floor is your best bet.  
  • Fewer hallways. Generally, open-concept home designs are gaining popularity, but they are particularly important to consider if you’re hoping to stay in your home for decades to come. The fewer hallways in a home, the easier it is to manoeuvre through, especially if you find yourself needing a walker or wheelchair one day. 
  • Entrances. Even single-story dwellings like bungalows often have a few steps to the front door, and these can be an inconvenience in later life. Try to find a home that has at least one entrance on ground level. 
  • Locate switches conveniently. Don’t put your light switches or thermostat control too high on the wall. Locating these switches at a height that can be reached from a wheelchair isn’t bothersome when you’re upright and mobile, and can greatly simplify your life as you age in place in your later years. 

The majority of seniors want to stay in their homes long term. If you have an elderly loved one, the principles of Universal Home Design can help make that desire a reality for them, and will allow them to maintain a degree of independence, even if they reach a time when they need care