As our bodies get old, our abilities definitely start changing with them. Bending over gets a little harder, it's tougher to grip things, our eyes aren't as sharp as they used to be, and we have trouble getting around. It's an inevitable consequence of aging, but it can be not very much fun, especially when you're living in a home designed for a younger and more active version of you.
The universal design movement is looking to change that by creating interior design and architecture that are suitable for all kinds of people in all stages of life. A few simple changes can make a huge difference; for example, lowering switches to make them accessible to wheelchair users and children while still easy to reach for ambulatory people. Under universal design, the idea is that you should be able to live with dignity in your home as you age, without having to move because steep stairs, cumbersome kitchens, and other problems make it impossible for you to live comfortably.
One area where universal design can be especially important is in the kitchen, both because it's a room that gets used a lot, and because it's a room where people tend to be highly active. Counters at the wrong height, taps that are hard to use, confusing layouts, and more can turn a kitchen from the friendly center of a home to a minefield.
So how do you design a kitchen so you can age in place in it (and bake cookies for the grandkids?). Obviously, you may need to be prepared for some remodeling to get your kitchen broken down and back up to speed. A good kitchen should have lots of room, with ideally around five feet of clearance around working spaces to allow wheelchair users to navigate comfortably without having to back in and out of tight spaces.
Think about lowering counters, ovens, and ranges to make them easy to reach from a seated position, and don't make the counters too deep; it can be hard to reach back into them if you're using a walker or wheelchair for mobility. Think ahead when it comes to taps and faucets, too. They will be easier to operate with levers (rather than knobs, which require strength and coordination to use). Simple efficiency measures can also make a big difference, because they'll make the kitchen easier to use.
Also consider a good nonslip floor that's friendly to wheelies and people using walkers. That means staying away from slick tile materials that might get extremely slippery if they get wet, as for example when water spills during cooking. Slippery floors can rapidly lead to dangerous falls.
If you live in a climate that tends to get extreme sometimes, another consideration can be temperature regulation. Some older adults have a tendency to get too hot or too cold very quickly, which can be extremely uncomfortable. In the Southwest, for example, Phoenix HVAC systems need to be carefully installed and calibrated to keep people comfortable.
Designing an accessible home has a lot of advantages beyond just ensuring that you can age in place. It can increase the sale value of your home, and it makes it much easier to accommodate guests of all ages and ability levels; they don't want to worry about whether your house will be navigable, and if it will be an inconvenience to you to have them around. Numerous resources on universal design are available to help homeowners with modification and design projects.
Katie Marks writes for Networx.com.