For Seniors, the Comforts of Home

By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 19, 2008

The wide-open rooms! The lighting! The endless hardwood floors!

The brick house on a leafy lot at 2635 18th St. NE is enough to leave almost any home buyer breathless.

But the unique features of the house, the ones that have universal appeal, are hidden to most people.

Called Andrus House, it is an example of how to create a place for senior citizens to age gracefully and safely in a home setting.

The remodeling of an old house that was owned for years by the D.C. government was completed this month. It will remain empty for a few weeks, during its open-house tours, until six senior citizens of mixed abilities and incomes move in this summer.

The floors are made of seamless hardwood and the doorways are wide, making it easy to go from room to room with a walker, cane or wheelchair. Strategic lighting and spotlights help those with weak eyesight. The outlets are high, and the light switches are low.

"Ninety percent of the people over 60 say they want to stay in their homes. . . . They don't want to be separated from society," said Mimi Castaldi, director of the District's AARP chapter. "This is a model to show it can be done."

The Andrus House is open for public tours to give residents, family members, builders and architects ideas on how to help the aging stay in their homes so they can remain part of the fabric of their neighborhood.

The house was created using the principles of universal design. An outgrowth of barrier-free houses, universal-style homes are as stylish as traditional ones but incorporate features that make living easier, such as extra floor space, good lighting, non-slip floors and levered door handles.

With big and often expensive design changes such as roll-in showers and concrete ramps, and small flourishes such as decorative handles that look more like fancy towel racks than senior-center rails, Andrus House is a showplace for small tips, such as angling mirrors downward so that people in wheelchairs see more than their foreheads, and big ideas, such as knocking out walls to make roomy spaces that are easier to move through.

The kitchen is the centerpiece. The granite countertops are positioned at several levels, making food preparation easier from a wheelchair or a standing position. The bases of the sink and stovetop are designed so that a wheelchair can easily roll underneath.

The dishwasher and stove are raised, so deep-knee bends are not necessary for daily tasks. Deep cabinets have roll-out shelves. The space between the base of cabinets and the floors, the toe kick, is more generous than in standard kitchens.

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