If you want to stay in your place for the foreseeable future, the strategies here can help keep you comfortable—and safe—for years to come
By Janet Siroto
Where do you see yourself living as you get older? Apparently, most of us want to stay right where we are. In a recent University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging, 88 percent of the respondents, who were between 50 and 80 years old, said it was somewhat or very important to them to stay in their homes for as long as possible.
When it comes to staying put through the years, baby boomers may be leading the way. “They’re reinventing what aging means, as well as how and where it happens,” says Suzanne Salamon, MD, clinical chief of gerontology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and co-author of “Aging in Place” (Harvard Health Publishing, 2018).
And thanks to a growing number of professionals with expertise in this area, along with helpful products and advances in technology, aging in place is more doable these days than ever before. Of course, it’s likely to require making changes to your current home, some of them simple DIY projects and some more challenging (and more costly).
But the upside of aging where you want to can be significant, allowing you to stay close to the people, places, and support systems that are most familiar. Also, the age-friendly improvements you make to your home may allow you to stay there in comfort for decades and be less expensive than a new living situation.
Whether you’re just starting to think about this or are well into the process, we can help.
Is Aging in Place for You?
While most Americans want to stay in their current home long-term, it might not work for everyone. For instance, if your partner has a debilitating condition such as dementia, the round-the-clock care that’s ultimately required might not be financially feasible or realistic for a caregiving partner. (Just 40 hours per week of professional home care currently costs a median of $1,113, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.) Another option: a continuing care community (which offers different levels of care), where “at the appropriate time, the person with dementia can step up to memory care,” Salamon says. The other partner can stay in their original home in the care community and visit whenever they please.
Your Age-Friendly Home Checklist
Some homes are more adaptable to the needs of older adults than others. But whether you’re in a ranch with an all-on-one-level design, a cozy apartment, or a Victorian with steep stairs, evaluating your space carefully is key. So grab a measuring tape and a notebook—and perhaps a trusted family member or friend, or a pro with expertise in aging in place—and walk through your home, noting any potential problem areas. (See “Pro Help Starts Here,” below.)
A walk-through will typically identify issues with simple solutions, such as the addition of motion-sensitive lights, and others that may require significant work, like the installation of a more accessible shower. Prioritize safety changes, such as minimizing the need for stairs. You don’t have to do everything at once. Here are the questions to consider.
Can You Enter and Exit the House Without Difficulty?
Flat, stable, well-lit pathways outside your house and leading to your yard, patio, and garage are ideal, as is a parking spot as close to your door as possible. If the house doesn’t have at least one step-free entrance, think about how you might create one. That could involve the installation of a ramp, but if you consider these unsightly, other options include sloping entries with handrails that blend into the landscape, such as a broad, paved path with a gentle rise that runs from where you park to your home’s entrance, says Kurt Clason, a certified aging-in-place specialist and president of the Clason Remodeling Company in Ossipee, N.H.
For areas where stairs are likely to remain, the steps themselves should be in good repair, with sturdy handrails (round rails are easiest to hold on to) on both sides, running the full length of the staircase. Bright lights, especially at the top and bottom of exterior steps, along with nonslip rubber treads or tape are smart for people of all ages. (Amazon sells a 35-foot roll of grip tape for $21.) And check that welcome mat to make sure it has a nonslip backing.
Protecting entrances from wet weather—which can make surfaces slick—can be as simple as adding a plastic weather awning over your door ($30 to $200 and up at home centers and online). Installation is typically a two-person job involving a ladder, so ask family members to help or hire someone.
Could You Live Mostly on One Floor?
Going up and down stairs multiple times a day can become challenging as we age. (See our guide to healthier joints.) So in the best of all worlds, you’d have a bedroom and full bath on the first floor. If not, do you have the space to create such a primary suite? A bedroom can often be carved out of a family room or den. Or you might be able to use a dining room, an alcove, or even part of the living room. A temporary wall can help.
And if there’s already a powder room on the first floor of your home, think about whether a shower could be installed inside it. This typically costs about $6,700, according to HomeAdvisor. For a full main-level bath (the average cost is $15,000), “sometimes space can be found in unexpected places, like under the stairs,” Clason says.
In other situations, that first-floor primary suite might require an addition to your home. (A bedroom and bathroom addition runs about $62,500, on average, according to HomeAdvisor.)
If creating a bedroom and bathroom on the first floor doesn’t seem possible, perhaps your house could accommodate a staircase chair lift, a motor-powered device with a secure seat that can take you up and down a set of stairs (shown below). The average price is $6,000, including installation.
Another option may be a home elevator. The latest offerings are often compact enough to take the place of a hall closet, with a diameter as small as 30 inches—though some residential elevators are big enough to accommodate a wheelchair. While the prices of home elevators have come down, they still cost $2,000 to $60,000, with installation at least a few thousand dollars more.
The average price for a chair lift is $6,000, including installation.
Photo: Getty Images
Is It Easy to Get Around in Your Most-Used Living Spaces?
Check the paths you take from the bedroom to the bathroom, to the kitchen, and out the front door to make sure they’re simple to navigate, without furniture or level changes impeding you. With an eye to the future, you’ll also want enough space to get through these areas without difficulty using a mobility aid such as a walker, scooter, or wheelchair.
One consideration is the space needed to turn around while using a wheelchair or scooter. Guidelines from the National Association of Home Builders (which administers the designation for certified aging-in-place specialists, or CAPS) call for clear 5x5-foot spaces in main areas (living room, kitchen, bedroom, bathroom) for wheelchair turns.
Doorways are an important part of this equation, too. Typical doorways inside homes are 32 inches wide. But those that are 36 inches wide allow for the easiest access. A professional can tell you whether you can widen your home’s doorways. If it’s possible, expect to pay $1,200 or more to enlarge an existing door frame. Or “see if pocket doors can be added,” says Tricia Catiggay, an occupational therapist with Stanford Health Care.
Is Your Risk of Falling at Home Low?
Keeping floors free of trip hazards and having good lighting and sturdy objects to hold on to at key points in your home are the main ways to protect yourself from taking a tumble. So work to rid living areas of clutter, and tuck electric cords out of the way. Ditch throw rugs, and area rugs and carpets with curled-up edges or more than a half-inch of pile. Hold remaining rugs in place with nonslip rug pad grippers, typically less than $20 for a 4x6-foot size.
Replacing floors is a big job, but if you have highly polished wood or marble, which can be slippery, it may be worthwhile to look into ceramic or vinyl tile, or carpet that’s no higher than a half-inch. For stairs, carpeting might be best for traction, and nonslip treads (about $40 for a pack of 15) or tape (about $16 for a 2-inch-wide 30-foot-long roll) can reduce fall risks on wood. (For further stability, staircases should also have handrails, preferably on both sides.)
Throughout your home, check the height of the thresholds—strips of wood, stone, or metal where two rooms connect. These should be no more than a half-inch high at an exterior door and a quarter-inch high between interior rooms.
In bathrooms, no-threshold showers or shower pans (also called roll-in or curbless showers) are considered the safest option, and they can look sleek and stylish. Most homes can accommodate them; parts vary in price, with labor typically about $1,000, Clason says. Another option is a walk-in tub, which averages $5,500 installed. Place nonslip stickers on tub and shower floors.
Being able to sit while showering may also make a fall less likely, so consider a shower bench or chair with nonslip feet ($30 to $40). Space-saving wall-mounted benches come in a variety of materials, including teak (about $150 and up). Grab or grip bars ($7 and up, shown below), which you can grasp if you feel unsteady, are bathroom essentials. Bolted-on bars rather than those that attach by suction are better. “I’m a fan of having them at the entrance, by the toilet, and at the tub/shower,” Catiggay says. A bonus: These now come in attractive finishes such as brass, bronze, and copper.
Good home lighting is vital for preventing falls, too, so illuminate paths to bathrooms for nighttime visits and place light switches at the top and bottom of each staircase. It’s generally wise to amp up lighting throughout the home, with LED bulbs of at least 800 lumens. For ease, consider rocker switches—broad panels you press to turn on and off—and motion-activated lighting (about $20 for four night-lights) or “smart” switches (about $47 for four) that can turn lights on with a voice command. (See “Tech Tools That Make Life Easier as You Get OIder.”)
Bolted-on grab bars are more secure than those that attach by suction.
Photo: Getty Images
Can You Do Tasks Like Cooking Without Too Much Effort?
All the bending, reaching, and lifting that goes on in the kitchen can become harder as we age. A grabber tool (about $23) and a sturdy stepladder with handrails (at the top and side, ideally) and nonslip treads can assist you in reaching high cabinets. But it may be better to rethink your kitchen storage. Consider moving often-used items (especially those that are heavy or awkward, such as a food processor or large ceramic bowl) out of upper and lower cabinets and storing them at waist or shoulder level.
No easy way to do this? You might be able to make the cupboards more functional. Replacing some shelves with slide-out drawers ($60 and up) can create a better place for heavy skillets and pans. These cabinet inserts come in an array of configurations online and at home centers, and can be added with minor carpentry work by a contractor or handyperson.
While you’re at it, you may want to change kitchen and bathroom cabinet knobs, which can become harder to manipulate with age, in favor of handsome D-shape pulls (a few dollars to $20-plus apiece at home centers).
Another tweak to contemplate: Changing faucet knobs that must be grasped and turned for lever-style faucet handles or touchless faucets activated by motion sensors ($53 and up). Adding a pot filler near the stove will mean no more lugging pots full of water from sink to cooktop when pasta cravings strike (about $100 to $1,000 or more, with installation at $300 and up).
For food prep, you may want the option of sitting. A table between 28 and 34 inches high, with space for a chair (or wheelchair) underneath it, can do the trick. Another possibility is a step-down counter, a lower extension added to a current kitchen counter.
For other regular chores, if your laundry isn’t on the first floor, look for spots for your washer and dryer there. (See “Appliance Advice,” below, for tips on useful features.) Consider moving a few electrical outlets farther up the wall so you can plug in a vacuum, for example, without the need to bend down so far. (Wall outlets are usually 12 inches from the floor. You may want some that are at least 15 inches up the wall—and perhaps higher, depending on your particular physical needs.) This requires an electrician and costs about $200 per outlet. A robotic vacuum could also be a boon.
Will Living There Be Comfortable for You?
A few small modifications can help keep your home an inviting and relaxing place to live over the years. Consider your chairs and sofas, for instance. Because standing from a seated position can become more challenging with age, dining and living room chairs and upholstered furniture should have arms to make getting up easier. Stand assists or seat assists ($60 and up), portable devices that have handrails to support you as you stand, can also be slipped onto existing furniture. Those cushy couches and easy chairs could also become trickier to get out of, so you may want to choose firmer furnishings or restuff current cushions as needed. Another option: Motorized recliners (about $800 and up) that can boost users gently into a standing position with the push of a button.
When evaluating your bedroom, check the bed height. A bed 17 to 23 inches from the floor to the top of the mattress is generally considered the easiest to get into and out of, but what’s ideal for you may depend on your own height and mobility. “The right height bed is one where when you sit at the edge, with your legs in front of you, your feet touch the ground, and you have a right angle at the ankles, the knees, and the hip,” says Priscilla Flores, an occupational therapist at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas. For some people, a motorized adjustable bed frame, which can go from a flat position to a 90-degree angle or anything in between, can assist if maneuvering from lying down to sitting up is a challenge. Prices start at $300, and some come with wireless controls and built-in USB ports for charging devices. (See our review of the best mattresses.)
In the bathroom, think about whether a comfort-height toilet might be easier to sit down on and get up from. Standard-issue toilets measure about 15 inches from the floor to the top of the seat—and crouching that low can be challenging—while the Americans With Disabilities Act specifies toilets that are 17 to 19 inches tall. Or place a toilet-seat riser ($25 and up) on top of the existing toilet to add 3 inches or more to the seat height. (See our review of the best toilets.)
Age-friendly appliances have a few special basics. Digital controls may be a better option than mechanical knobs, which can be tough to turn if you have arthritis or other conditions that affect hand strength. Control panels should be clearly readable and uncluttered, says Dana Keester, a CR ergonomics expert: “You don’t need 15 settings—typically, people pick one or two and stay with those. Less is more.” Consider the following on several workhorse appliances, too.
• Washers and dryers: “A lot of the top-loaders have gotten really deep,” Keester says, which can make reaching into them difficult. A front-loading washer may be easier to use. (Consider how heavy a wet load of clothing can be.) Also, think about placing your washer and dryer on pedestals, “so you’re not bending or squatting to get clothes in and out,” she says. (See our reviews of the best top-load agitator washers, high-efficiency top-load washers, and clothes dryers.)
• Dishwashers: If you don’t usually have a full load of dirty dishes, a top-rack-only option allows you to skip the leaning and lifting that goes with using the bottom rack, Keester says. (See our review of the best dishwashers.)
• Ovens and cooktops: “A wall oven at waist height is nice so that you don’t have to bend,” says Tara Casaregola, who oversees the testing of ranges and cooktops at CR. And here’s another useful feature for older adults, Casaregola says: The knobs on certain ranges and cooktops are backlit when turned on, offering a visual cue that they’re operating. Keester also prefers controls that are at the front of ranges, “so you don’t have to reach over the burners to get to them.” (See our reviews of the best electric wall ovens and electric cooktops.)
Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the January 2023 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
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