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10 ways to prepare your home for aging in place

A no-curb entrance can benefit parents with children in strollers as well as elderly homeowners. <br/> (Benjamin Rednour)

Just 1 percent of homes are conducive to aging in place. So thinking long term about universal design and the ways it can help us remain at home across all life stages is beneficial.

For instance, a zero-step entry offers the same benefits to parents with children in strollers as it does to grandparents using walkers. Other design features — from minor, quick fixes to full-scale renovations — can be implemented in millions of homes. The key is to be aware of best practices, take a long-term view and start to plan for the future now, regardless of your age.

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Location also matters. AARP’s Livability Index scores neighborhoods and communities across the United States for the services and amenities that affect your life the most. To make your home span across the decades you must factor in your connection to neighbors, access to transportation (bus routes, Metro stations, walking paths), and proximity to stores, libraries and other resources.

Costs will vary depending on location and project, but designing for all ages fits a range of renovation budgets. Door handles and lighting fixtures are priced in the hundreds of dollars, sliding walls and kitchen countertops can run several thousand dollars, and the average cost to build a deck is $7,000 to $10,000.  Homeowners will inevitably deal with other maintenance issues along the way, so renovating one room at a time may be preferable. A whole-house renovation can cost more than $150,000.

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Here are 10 recommendations on age-proofing your home and maximizing its usefulness throughout your life:

  1. Entrances: Make them easy to get in and out of your house with groceries, a baby or a walker. Aim for one or more entrances without steps to offer convenience and unlimited access for family, guests and elderly adults.
  2. Bathrooms: Design the bathroom for convenience and to help prevent falls. Consider what you, your family or a visitor using a wheelchair might need to get around. Make sure the walls can accommodate handle bars, and that the sink, shower and toilet are accessible to people of all ages, heights and mobility. A door opening of at least 32 inches allows better access, and a curbless walk-in shower area is ideal.
  3. Kitchen: The kitchen is where people tend to invest most renovation dollars. Strive for an open design and varied counter heights (between 32 inches and 42 inches) to make it usable for various ages and abilities. Make storage accessible with pullout shelves and open shelving. Have a good blend of natural and artificial light for aesthetics as well as safety and convenience.
  4. Open design: The layout is popular for many reasons. It allows better flow of family and guests, presents fewer hallways and doors to navigate, offers greater freedom of movement and more flexibility in furniture layout, and makes an interior space feel larger. Sliding walls offer tremendous flexibility in allowing multiple uses for a single room.
  5. Bedrooms: If you don’t have a bedroom on your first floor, consider adding one. This option works for multiple life stages: new baby, college student, empty-nesters and aging parents.
  6. Windows: As we age, we need more light for reading and other tasks. Adding or enlarging windows is a terrific option. Windows connect us to nature and our community and allow people to easily watch their children and pets in the yard. Blinds or draperies offer a way to manage privacy and level of sunlight.
  7. Outdoors: Features such as covered entrances, wraparound decks and planters or container gardens help connect a home to the neighborhood and become natural extensions of the home. A wraparound deck, level with the first floor, allows access to each entrance and fosters a sense of community. Covered entrances prevent water and snow buildup on porches and provide protection for all family members entering and exiting the home in all weather. Gardens are aesthetically pleasing, can be therapeutic and can help provide food for a meal.
  8. Smaller homes: “Tiny House” isn’t just a TV show but also a growing trend. California has removed several barriers and fees to encourage homeowners to add “accessory dwelling units” to their properties. Look for this phenomenon to gain momentum, offering flexibility for adult children and retirees.
  9. Outlets, switches and doorknobs: Place outlets and switches at optimal heights and locations. Consider putting them where they can be reached while seated and by people of varying heights. Light switches that don’t require pinching or grasping will be easier to use. Doors that have lever hardware instead of knobs are easier to manipulate with a palm, closed fist or elbow when hands are full, injured or arthritic.
  10. Be inventive: Think about your lifestyle and priorities and make innovative adjustments accordingly. What space aren’t you using to its full potential that can be turned into something that makes your house even more of a home? Turn an outdated carport into additional living space or transform an unused bedroom or formal dining room into entertainment/living space that better suits your lifestyle.

Rodney Harrell is director of livability thought leadership at AARP.