How to buy a forever home with aging in mind

Shopping for your forever home – where you can continue to live comfortably as you age into your 60s, 70s and 80s? It may require more than finding a house with a shower cabin.

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As the population of seniors in the United States grows rapidly, Rodney Harrell, vice president of Home, Community and Family at AARP, recommends that you think about your future needs in a home, regardless of your age, while shopping for a home. Universal design or elements that make an environment more accessible can help with this.

For starters, Harrell points to AARP’s HomeFit guide. It outlines what to look for in a home that is suitable for aging in place, such as at least one step-free entrance to the home, well-lit hallways and toilets that sit at a comfortable height.

Those were things that Joan, a 77-year-old resident of Fairfield County, Connecticut, had in mind after she retired from a corporate career to become a full-time caregiver for her aging parents as well as her aunt.

Although no longer a caregiver, Joan continues to swim, lift weights and keep up with the house she remodeled for her elderly. Here’s how Joan renovated a single-family home for aging in place—and her advice for those seeking such a home of their own.

The decor is the most important consideration when buying a home to age in place.

“Life will continue to change until the end of their days,” Joan says of seniors dealing with health issues, “and those changes will happen quickly.” If you or your loved ones need a home with housing for aging in place, her recommendation is not to put them off until “someday.”

While browsing homes on Zillow or in person, it is imperative to ensure that the kitchen, a full bathroom, and at least one bedroom are on a single level for accessibility reasons. If you’ve fallen in love with a home that doesn’t offer this, an elevator or stairlift can come to the rescue.

Similarly, having at least one entryway without steps as well as wide aisles helps those who use mobility aids to enter a home smoothly. If your dream home lacks this feature, you’ll want to confirm that you’ll be able to install a ramp on the property down the line.

Make sure the bathrooms have – or can accommodate – age-friendly features.

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the highest bathroom injury rates are in people 65 and older; “For all ages, the most dangerous activities were bathing, showering, or getting out of the bathtub or shower.”

If you’re looking for a home with a bathtub, you’ll either want to skip it or make room in your budget to replace it. “Never keep the bathtub,” says Joan. “It’s very dangerous for seniors. A shower cubicle with a seat is essential.”

The same study noted that “about 14 percent of injuries were associated with standing up from, sitting down on, or using the toilet, but among people aged [greater than or equal to] 65 years old, the proportion varied from 19 percent to 37 percent.” This is where a toilet and sink at comfort height comes in handy.

Similarly, pocket doors in the bathroom are key. Having a contractor swap these for the original made getting in and out with a walker much easier, says Joan: “My dad was able to maneuver on his own for many years.”

“Seniors won’t admit they need these things,” says Joan from experience. But this is an advantage of universal design – such home improvements can be of help to users of all ages and abilities, from children to the elderly to the pregnant and the tired.

See if the kitchen allows accessible appliances.

Another important consideration concerns a home’s appliances. Questions to ask in a home, says GE Appliances industrial design manager Marc Hottenroth, are: “How easy is this [appliance] to use? How easy is it to put things in and take them out? What about the ergonomics? And capacity – does your family expand during holidays or summertime?”

If you’re interested in buying a home that doesn’t yet have age-friendly appliances, you’ll want to make sure the property has the ability to incorporate them during renovations.

In terms of features that need to be sought out or installed, for example, induction cooktops are safer than standard gas or electric stoves because “the don’t get hot; the pans get hot,” says Hottenroth. “You can take the forehead off, and a few seconds later, [the surface] is cool.”

In both cases, “it’s important that the controls are in front so users can avoid reaching over hot surfaces,” says Harrell. Front-mounted controls are easier to see and use, and some even have LCD screens. But if kids, jumping pets, or someone’s hip can turn a dial, be sure to get locking buttons or covers that are easy to order.

You may not even need a conventional oven these days; a convection microwave can handle baking and frying. Convection microwaves cost more up front, but the energy savings pay off and Help the environment, notes Harrell. Among the conventional oven options are those with a voice-activated door.

Say “open the door” with full hands, and the door – no handle! — slides open for you. Another choice has French doors. Pull one side and both open smoothly, says Hottenroth. Without the typical door in the way, you can get closer. “With muscle loss, it can be difficult to hover over a large door,” he adds.

Dishwashers can be annoying for everyone to reach. Using only the top half of a two-section device is a solution (albeit an expensive one), Harrell says, that “can reduce the bending required with a standard model.” An alternative is a model with three stands with silverware on top, says Hottenroth. Users who have difficulty bending or stooping can set it to “top wash only” and then use the entire machine when family or friends come to visit.

Washing machines and dryers, can also be hard on aging bodies: lean into a top loader or bend over for a front loader? Harrell prefers front loaders on 10-inch pedestals, which are sold separately. With top loaders, he recommends having a sturdy step stool nearby.

The problem is that front loaders are notorious for mildew problems—”a big problem for most front loaders,” Hottenroth admits. GE designers” added a air ventilation system and antimicrobial material, which has been wildly successful,” he says.

Whatever you buy, consider visiting a sales floor. “Seeing something in person can help you understand how a machine will fit your needs, how you can achieve things (or not),” says Harrell. This is one of the reasons why AARP has partnered with Lowe’s on aging content and solutions, a project called Habitable Home.

“It’s worth a trip,” he says, “to see what descriptions mean in real life.”

Whatever style of home you are considering buying, remember the flexibility from the bedroom to the bathroom to the kitchen and laundry room. Can each space accommodate updates for changing needs? And can your budget accommodate the extra expenses for whatever may be needed, from a walk-in shower to a stairlift to a convection microwave? Aging in place becomes easier if you buy a home with this as a goal from the start.

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