There’s nothing more normal than wanting to stay in your home (or age in place) as you get older. In fact, according to the AARP, nearly 90 percent of people over 65 prefer to age in place. We want to stay in our homes, among our own things, and near our close friends as long as possible. 

And the good news is, with the right investments and adjustments, you likely can.  And you can do it without sacrificing the elegance of your home. 

According to Tim Gallagher, a registered architect at Architex in Latham, accessible design is no longer centered on making accommodations for people with disabilities. The language he uses now focuses on universal design because these kinds of modifications make our spaces and our fixtures easier to use for every kind of person. 

“When we use the term ‘universal design,’” Gallagher says, “that includes aging in place, multigenerational households, and then there are those who have disabilities of some kind and we need to design specifically for them.” 

One common area of the home that will need a lot of modifications to ensure that you can age in place safely is, of course, the bathroom. And it starts right at the doorway. 

Standard doorways measure between 20 or 30 inches. Anyone dependent on a wheelchair or a walker will want to expand the doorway to 34 inches. People in their 40s (or younger) who are building new homes and want to age in place would be smart to build their doorways with these dimensions right at the beginning. “Even if they don’t need it at the moment,” Gallagher says, “now’s the time to put in that wider door because it’ll be twice the cost to rip it out” and expand it. 

Ben Cangeleri, a certified aging-in-place specialist and president and co-owner at Schrader and Company, a contractor in Burnt Hills, recommends five main adaptations for the bathroom when considering aging in place. 

  • Adding on, or converting, the first floor to include a bedroom and bathroom to minimize the need to use the stairs.
  • Create wider door openings to accommodate a walker or wheelchair. 
  • Remove the bathtubs and replace them with a “curbless” walk-in shower or a shower without a lip on the edge that needs to be stepped over. 
  • Add grab bars near the shower or the toilet. 
  • Switch out pull knobs to lever knobs to ease their use for arthritic fingers and hands. 

Gallagher and Cangeleri agree on these points, with an important caveat that these modifications don’t have to interfere with your home’s aesthetic. Gallagher says pull knobs, grab bars and showers can be beautiful, elegant fixtures. Another option that adds a stylish, contemporary look? No-touch fixtures that only require a wave of your hand to turn them on. He adds it can be a good idea to modify the height of your counters, too, so you don’t need to bend or stoop. That project is an opportunity to refresh your bathroom’s look with new countertops or vanities. 

Heated floors can be a luxury upgrade worth investing in, too. Ditto high-end toilet systems with motorized seats that automatically move up or down at the push of a button. Those toilets can also include heated and cushioned seating to make you as comfortable as possible. 

“There’s nothing more comfortable than coming into your bathroom and the floor isn’t freezing cold,” Gallagher says. 

Cangeleri says the mission behind the design at Schrader and Co. “is to create a beautiful yet functional space that will adapt to the needs of a person as they age.” 

“We pay particular attention to material selections and style so it does not look institutional or dated,” Cangeleri says. And that’s especially important for people who want to age comfortably in their home, and why the universal approach to this design is so important for people aging in place: it’s timeless.

Bathroom designed as a wet room
Photography by by Randall Perry Photography

This bathroom is located on the first floor of the home. The bathroom was designed as a wet room. A wet room has a drain set directly into a tile floor and a slightly sloped floor to help direct the water flow. They are called wet rooms because the entire surface of the room can be exposed to moisture without damage. The shower was designed to be open to allow for a walker, seat, or wheelchair without needing to step over or trip on any curbs. Swinging glass panel doors also move to allow clearance for a walker or wheelchair. An adjustable shower head was added along with a removable hand shower that moves up and down on the wall as needed.

Example of grab bars designed to look like towel bars to offer support for those in need.
Photography by Randall Perry Photography

Grab bars are disguised as towel bars or towel holders. These provide extra support when getting out of the shower or using the toilet. A comfort height toilet was substituted for a standard size. Comfort Height toilets are around 17 to 19 inches from the floor to the seat top. They are usually about two to three inches higher than Standard Height models. Two or three inches might not seem like much, but it does add a factor of ease. The vanity was created at a specific height to allow space for a wheelchair to fit underneath. Extra lighting means a nice bright environment and additional safety.