For empty nesters, moving to one-floor living is easier than you think
Construction projects not necessary, according to design experts
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Navigating flights of stairs or the cost of installing a pneumatic elevator need not be the reason for empty nesters to be deterred from living at home, say design experts.
There are dozens of creative ways to move to a living environment on just one floor that are easy and enhance safety—and may even increase resale value.
If you or loved ones are considering aging in place, strategically rethink the spaces you’ve lived in for years and see the possibilities going room-by-room.
Quick fixes in the kitchen
Major renovations to lower counter height and incorporate mobility devices are rarely necessary, says certified aging in place specialist Barb Mueller, president of Designs Anew Houston, LLC.
Rather, think about keeping spaces more vertical for first-floor storage, and invest in supplemental task lighting to assist aging eyes while chopping vegetables, she suggests.
Mueller recommends stocking up on in-cabinet storage containers that have brightly contrasting colors, too, which makes immediate distinction of tools like knives easier—and storage of them safer.
Incorporating a movable or permanent baker’s counter is an easy way to add accessibility, says architect and interior design consultant Diane Miller , of Miller Design, LLC in Belmont, Massachusetts. Having it at table height of 30 to 32 inches, rather than the standard 36 inches, can help seniors prepare food comfortably from a sitting position.
Installing motion-sensor faucets may be easier for those with arthritis, Miller suggests. And, incorporating an under-cabinet microwave or microwave drawer—which sits just below your countertop—is something she often recommends so seniors don’t have to strain upward with heavy, hot food.
Laundry room strategies
Moving laundry facilities to the first floor reduces trip hazards, as no one has to carry heavy baskets up a flight of stairs from a dark basement, says Miller.
“Front-loading machines are often easier, especially if you install them at an elevated height to minimize the need to bend down,” she says. “Conveniently, there are now many smaller, stackable options that can tuck into a closet space, too.”
Reconfiguring a bedroom space
It’s relatively easy to reconfigure a living room—or even better, a den or spare “flex space”—into a bedroom on the first floor, says Mueller.
A project like this is also an opportunity to replace shorter beds with higher ones that are easier to get in and out of, says Eliza Wright of Hart Wright Architects in San Francisco. Most beds are 16 to 24 inches from the floor. Going for a bed that’s closer to 24 inches means you don’t have to do as much of a low squat in order to stand up. Of course, it also depends on the height of the sleeper, because the ideal bed height is one where the feet are flat against the floor and the knees are in a straight line with the hips.
“It’s also a good idea to make sure you have appropriate clearance of about four feet in spaces, because as you get older, we’re not as agile and we bump into things,” says Wright. “However, now’s the time to investigate larger nightstands, because seniors need room for their prescriptions, a water glass, and may have oxygen needs.”
Reconfiguring spaces into a bedroom is one of the best times to add power outlets, too, recommends Wright, as more may be needed to plug in medical equipment or keep cell phones fully juiced in case of an emergency.
Bigger bathroom investments
A bigger investment in first-floor living may be adding a shower into a first-floor bathroom, as many in older houses don’t have bathing facilities.
Mueller’s strategy is to look for storage areas adjacent to the powder room where a wall can be knocked down to add a shower.
“Or,” she advises, “look for a pantry or hall closets, or if you have a larger kitchen with a breakfast area, ‘steal’ that space.”
Miller says that adding showers are always great for a home’s resale value, but her stylistic recommendations for seniors are practical: no shiny tile on the floors (opt for more of a textured surface for grip), and larger grout.
Built-in benches and grab bars are a lot more attractive these days versus their earlier, clinical counterparts, adds Mueller.
Adjustable shower wands are also typically inexpensive for a plumber to switch out with existing hardware, and replacing existing toilets with “comfort” commodes that are higher than the standard 15 inches make sitting easier for those with creaky knees, says Miller.
Trip and grip-ifying floors and doors
Easy aesthetic and hardware changes can mean a world of difference for safety and convenience, says Bonnie Lewis, founder of 55+ TLC Interior Design, LLC, in Arizona. She recommends removing throw rugs, as they are often a trip hazard for the elderly.
She also suggests switching out round doorknobs that must be grasped with door handles or levers. This is an easy fix that is especially helpful for those who develop arthritis.
Wright says that like stairs, raised thresholds between rooms are a common area for seniors to stumble. Flattening them is a good item to add to a general contractor’s quick to-do list.
Bringing nature inside
Miller says garages are “super important” in snowy climates so that seniors don’t have to scrape ice off their cars or shovel a slippery driveway. Yet, many homes, especially in New England, don’t have a direct entrance from the garage into a home’s interior.
Adding a connection can increase access and safety, enhance resale value, and also add all-important storage for those who may need more after converting to first-floor-only living.
Insofar as sunny days, skylights are another quick enhancement that’s often less expensive than many seniors expect, shares Wright.
Adding opportunities to enjoy natural light also top Mueller’s list of recommendations for those aging in place. Projects can include installing a window in an outside-facing wall or converting a patio area into a screened-in porch to extend seasonality.
Mueller says, “As we’re less mobile, we have to consider that we may not be able to get out and walk around as much as we’re used to. Adding in a space at home to enjoy nature will make us feel healthier.”
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.