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The aging process is rarely kind, and limits to mobility become more pronounced as the years pass. Still, more than two-thirds of adults age 50 and older would prefer to age in place — that is, remain independent in their own homes, according to the AARP Public Policy Institute.
This is not a cheap choice. Home modifications necessary to accommodate seniors can add up to thousands of dollars. Many of these one-time expenses hit the budget hard, but if you know what to expect, they can be spread out as conditions dictate. And some are inexpensive DIY jobs that even a novice can undertake. The alternatives — moving to a retirement community, independent living facility, or assisted living facility — involve recurring expenses that may be costlier yet.
Walkers and wheelchairs are common mobility aids for seniors, but don't fit comfortably through conventional interior doorways, which can be as narrow as 24 inches. On the first floor, at least, they should be widened to at least 32 inches and preferably 36 inches. Be prepared to pay several hundred dollars for each, and more if it's necessary to move electric wiring, switches, and outlets and replace the header (the beam over the door). Door sills should also be removed or lowered so people with walkers can get over them easily.
Knobs are hard to turn with arthritic hands and should be replaced with lever-handled openers. This is an easy DIY project, and lever handles are fairly cheap. Expect to pay about $20 for a set of two lever openers (one for each side) and a latch. Don't forget to switch out knobs for levers on closet doors too.
Seniors require a lot more light to perform routine tasks. All areas of the house, particularly stairways, should be well lit. This might mean adding lights to stairways and kitchens (such as under-cabinet lighting), or upping the number of freestanding lamps around the house. For starters, replace common toggle light switches for wide, flat-plane rocker switches (starting at $9) that are easier to maneuver.
This is where slips and falls are most common and where the most big-ticket changes may be necessary, which could mean hiring a contractor. At least one bathroom on the first floor should be accessible to anyone with a wheelchair or walker, which could be as simple as widening the doorway. In a house with only a powder room on the first floor, the half bath should be turned into a full bathroom of at least 30 square feet. This probably means corralling space from a contiguous room and could easily bring the project cost to about $25,000.
Single-handle faucets that don't require a turning action to start and stop the water flow are a cheap upgrade. Such fixtures start under $50. Better yet are faucets that are controlled by a quick touch or wave of a hand and don't require grabbing or holding, although they're more expensive.
Handrails and safety bars around the toilet and shower/bath provide extra support and help prevent falls. And they don't have to make the bathroom look like hospital-issue accommodations. Until needed for their intended purpose, handrails and safety bars can double as towel racks and shelves. This is a good DIY project that doesn't cost much (prices start at about $11) but must be done correctly, with the bars screwed into wall studs so they can support up to 300 pounds.
Vanities provide valuable storage space but make sinks inaccessible to someone in a wheelchair. Wall-mounted sinks, which sell for as little as $40, are the preferred alternative. One consequence of this modification is exposed pipes, which should be insulated or covered in some way to prevent burnt knees.
It's no more expensive to install a hand-held shower head than any other type, costing as little as $17. A hand-held sprayer can be mounted to the regular shower fixture, or on a rod that lets the user adjust the height and lock it in place. The rod arrangement lets anyone use the shower and is convenient for standing or sitting.
One of the biggest bathroom makeover expenses for aging in place is replacing a bathtub with a walk-in shower. A barrier-free shower should feature a slightly sloped floor, so the water runs into the drain and not all over. Plan on adding a removable bench that can be called into service or stored away when not in use. Glass doors may be attractive but are maintenance nightmares and might interfere with an aide hired to help the bather; a shower curtain is a better option. The cost of replacing a tub (after it's been ripped out) with a walk-in shower kit might run $2,000 to $4,000.
Large porcelain or marble tiles in the bath may be stylish, but they're slippery when wet. The more friction there is on the floor — that is, the smaller the tiles and the greater the number of grout lines — the safer the floor will be. Replacing a bathroom floor is a high aging-in-place priority even if all other fixtures remain. Fortunately, ceramic tiles are relatively inexpensive, and someone who is handy and willing to remove the old tile could probably retile a floor in one weekend.
Some experts recommend installing induction cooktops in kitchens used by seniors. Induction heat keeps the stovetop cool and minimizes the chances anyone will be burned. It also prevents boil-overs, because the electromagnetic field shuts off automatically after a pre-set time, or when the contents of a pot have evaporated. A cheaper alternative is a stove guard ($380) that shuts off the stove after a set time has elapsed if there's no activity in the area.
Retrofitting cabinets is a kitchen modification that helps seniors but is also considered an all-purpose upgrade. One easy project is removing lower cabinet shelves and installing pullouts that bring items in the back within reach. Individual slide-out shelves are not expensive ($75 to $150 at Costco, including hardware). The second part of the job calls for replacing cabinet door knobs with handles that are easier for arthritic fingers to hold.
Depth perception and the ability to distinguish between objects of similar color diminish with age. A neutral or all-white kitchen may be a hazard for an elderly person who cannot tell the difference between the countertop and the edge. A cheap fix is to run colored duct tape along the edges. If a remodel is planned, choose a counter with a different colored edge or in a color that contrasts with the floor, walls, and cabinets.
Perhaps the greatest barrier to aging in place is living in a house with stairs. They offer built-in exercise for a while, but as years increase and mobility decreases, they may become difficult or impossible to navigate. If the house entrance does not have stairs, it may be possible to relocate a bedroom to the first floor and resolve the issue with minimal expense. Alternatively, adding a chair lift to a staircase could cost from about $1,000 for a straight set of stairs with DIY installation to as much as $15,000 if there are turns and landings.