According to the AARP, 80% of seniors want to “age in place” rather than move to a retirement community, nursing home, or assisted living facility. Staying at home presents a number of advantages, but there are certain challenges as well. In order to safely and comfortably age in place, many people might find that they need to make some adjustments to their homes. Design choices that prevent stooping, reaching, and falling help to keep the space safe and accessible, especially in the kitchen.
Why Focus on the Kitchen?
The kitchen is the heart of the home. It is where we tend to spend the majority of our day, whether we are cooking, sharing a meal, or cleaning up. The kitchen is also where many accidents occur, particularly as we get older and become more prone to injury. The biggest issues often involve falling, unattended appliances, and cooking injuries like burns.
If you’re considering aging in place, doing a remodel of your home now with that goal in mind might make sense. Many of the adjustments are minor — like rethinking those throw rugs — but some will be a little more involved, particularly in the kitchen. Here are a few ways experts recommend adjusting the heart of your home in order to enjoy it for many years to come.
The biggest change you’ll want to make in your kitchen is cabinet height. The upper cabinets should be lowered around 3 inches from their normal height to make items easier to reach. Alternatively (or in addition), many contractors recommend pull-down shelving or a pullout step around the perimeter of the floor.
Lower cabinets should also have pull-out shelving, if possible. Many experts use the phrase “Drawers, not doors” when designing senior-friendly kitchens, as drawers increase visibility, ease of access, and storage space. This is especially important with the lower storage areas, as drawers reduce back strain and eliminate having to squat to retrieve items towards the back. Lazy Susan cabinets are an equally accessible option wherever they will fit.
Finally, use lever-style or “D-shaped” handles instead of knobs to reduce the need for a grip that might aggravate arthritic hands.
Prioritize the Work Triangle: Oven/Stove, Sink, and Refrigerator
The oven/stove, sink, and refrigerator form the hub of our kitchen workspace, so try to place them as close together as possible. Even better: try to have them all on the same level. A wall-mounted oven reduces the need for bending and lifting (hot) heavy items, making for an easier transfer to the countertop.
Cooktops are recommended for aging in place rather than standard ranges. Cooktops cool off much faster than traditional ranges, and are usually self-cleaning as an added bonus. Just make sure the cooktop has color indicators to show whether the burners are on or still hot after it has been shut down, and choose a model that has a large numerical display with front-mounted controls.
Unlike standard ranges, cooktops can also be installed at variable heights to ensure comfort and align with lowered countertops, to further ease transitioning of items. If you want to go even further, many cooktops have an option to install a pot-faucet so that you’re not forced to carry heavy pots further than necessary.
It is important to consider the height and depth of your sink if you’re doing a remodel. Although deep farm sinks are beautiful and functional, they aren’t that conducive to aging in place. The recommendation is to consider a sink about 6 inches deep, to reduce the need for bending over too far to reach the drain.
Side-by-side refrigerators are typically the best option: people can easily open both compartments, items are readily accessible, and they usually have long door handles that are easier to grip. It is an added bonus if you can find a model with slide-out shelves, to make items easier to reach from a seated position.
*A note on kitchen appliances: The majority of modern appliances are now available with automatic shut-off options. When you can, opt for a device with this feature, to eliminate the possibility of an unattended appliance causing an injury or accident.
Another key consideration to make your kitchen truly accessible for aging in place is how easily you can move throughout the space. In most homes doorways and entryways are 24 inches wide, which doesn’t leave enough room for a walker or wheelchair. Proper access for wheelchairs require 42 to 48 inches of clearance for all pathways, and doorways should be at least 36 inches wide. If you want to keep your existing doors, they can be installed with a special hinge that will move the edge of the door out of the passageway, which gives you a few extra inches. Doorways aren’t the only issue; make sure cabinets and appliances are spaced such that you have plenty of room to maneuver in between them.
In addition to ample space, ensure that floors are clear and safe as well. Get rid of door curbs or any “speed bumps” that exist between rooms. Throw rugs become a giant no-no for people wanting to age in place, because they present a fall risk. Vinyl, linoleum, and hardwood are often recommended as flooring options, because they are easier to push a walker over than tile.
The right lighting will help prevent accidents, provide a suitable work environment, and reduce eye strain. If possible, your kitchen should have a good mix of sunlight and artificial light. Try to place the sink and high-use countertops by windows. Under-cabinet lighting is great for illuminating otherwise dark work areas. Task-lighting — or lights for specific areas such as sinks and countertops — is also recommended. And for any lighting options, switch to LED, high-wattage bulbs as they’ll provide more power for a fraction of the energy use of traditional bulbs.
As a safety consideration, make sure a light switch is placed within easy reach of any entryway, or you could opt for a sensor-activated light that will automatically turn on when anyone walks in the room.
Is This Really Necessary?
Some of these modifications may seem like overkill (not to mention expensive), but you’ll find that even doing small changes over time are well worth the effort to enjoy your home comfortably years down the road. And, when compared to the cost of a retirement home, a kitchen remodel is not only affordable but preferable.
Other Articles You Might Enjoy:
- Aging in Place: Steps You Can Take Now to Prepare
- Elegant Upgrades Designed for Aging in Place
- 5 Lighting Tips for Healthy Aging