Senior-Friendly Home Designs for Every Budget


When you hear about universal design and how it can make a home more accessible, you might immediately think that it is meant to help those who are elderly or have trouble with mobility. However, universal design is exactly what it sounds like – it’s universal. It is creating a space in which everyone from the smallest toddlers to the proudest great-grandparents can live in comfort and ease.

But there’s no doubt universal design becomes much more important as we age. Part of the reason lies in how universal design can help reduce the risk of falling. According to the CDC, three million older people are treated in emergency rooms each year for fall-related injuries, and over 800,000 of those injured are hospitalized. Though the right accessibility options for the home don’t eliminate the risk of falling, they can reduce it. And if a fall does happen, medical alert systems with fall detection can be a priceless addition to the home.

While some aspects of a more accessible home might immediately come to mind, such as ramps for easier entry into the home or grab bars and seats in the shower, there are some universal design elements that you might not even notice. In addition, for every expensive upgrade to the home that makes it more accessible, there is another, more affordable upgrade that can make your home safer for the entire family, especially those who are aging in place.

The History of Universal Design

The original concept of universal design began to emerge in the mid-1980s, when caregivers began to think about and request upgrades to their homes that made it easier to care for their loved ones. Some of these were very straightforward ideas, such as having no raised thresholds in the home (tripping hazards), putting bedrooms on the lower floor instead of upstairs, and installing lever faucets or door handles (easier to turn).

The need was very clear. By 1988, the government recognized that need and created the Fair Housing Amendments Act, which required any multi-family apartment complexes with four or more units to have at least one accessible unit. But notably absent from the legislation was any requirements for new construction of single-family homes. That’s why there are so many homes today that need to be modified to allow for aging in place.

In 1997, architects, designers, and other construction professionals came together to create the four principles of universal design.

The Principles of Universal Design

According to The Center for Universal Design at NC State University, universal design can be defined as “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”

To that end, universal design is based on seven core principles. These include:

1.    Equitable use. Privacy, security, and safety should be the same for all users, and the design should be appealing to all users as well.

2.    Flexibility. The design should be adaptable to the user as much as possible; for instance, the design should be accommodating to those who are left-handed or right-handed.

3.    Simple and intuitive. Universal design should not be too complex, take into account the wide range of skills and literacy of users, and offer consistent information or feedback.

4.    Perceptible information. Presenting information should be done through redundant means, such as including pictorial, verbal, and tactile feedback. Keep in mind those with sensory limitations and find ways to present information to them in a way that sustains their independence.

5.    Error tolerance. Arrange the elements of the home in a way that reduces the possibility of hazard and errors by keeping the most used elements as accessible as possible and eliminating elements that might compromise safety.

6.    Low physical effort. There should be no requirement for sustained physical effort to use any element of universal design. The user should be able to maintain a neutral body position and use reasonable force to operate an element of the home, such as opening a door.

7.    Keep size and space in mind. There should be a clear line of sight to all elements the user might need, and they should be comfortable to reach for anyone who is seated or standing. Consider variations in hand size and grip strength. Also keep in mind the space necessary for assistance, such as being able to move a wheelchair around the home.

Home Accessibility on a Tight Budget

Does all this sound like it could get expensive? You might be surprised how many universal design elements you can incorporate into the home right now at a very low cost. Here are a few good options for those on a tighter budget.

·         Make the steps safer. If your home has steps, inside or out, install sturdy handrails to help prevent falls. You can also add non-slip strips to the steps and the handrails themselves, to provide better grip for hands or feet. 

·         Install grab bars. These bars are attached to studs and thus can hold quite a bit of weight. Install them in the shower, bathtub, near the toilet, and in other areas of the home where they might be helpful, such as near the bed.

·         Add more lights. Create a clear view everywhere with more lights in the hallways, bathrooms, kitchen, and anywhere else a person might walk through at night. Motion-activated lights can be a good idea for hallways and bathrooms as well.

·         Levered handles. This is a good idea for doors and faucets. Consider replacing any handle that requires a twisting motion. For faucets, you could go one step further and consider a motion-sensing model.

·         Detachable showerhead. This is a small upgrade that packs an enormous punch in making it easier to maintain excellent hygiene, especially from a seated position.

·         Shower seat. A shower seat can be quite a comfort to anyone who wants to take their time and relax in the shower or who is concerned about slip-and-falls. These can be free-standing seats or those that attach to the wall and fold down.

·         Strobe light or alarm systems. Those who are hearing impaired can benefit from doorbells or smoke detectors that visually strobe, or loud alarms that can help the visually impaired.

·         Medical alert devices. Medical alert technology ensures that if someone has any issue requiring immediate assistance, they can reach help in seconds.

·         Rocker light switches. Replace your typical light switch with a rocker switch that floods the room with light at a simple touch of the hand.

·         Lamps with pull switches. For table lamps, go with those that have pull cords – much like you see on a ceiling fan – rather than switches that must be twisted to turn on the light.

If You Have a Little More Cash

Do you have a bit more money set aside for more extensive universal design elements? Make aging in place much easier with the following upgrades.

·         A programmable thermostat. This can prevent multiple trips to adjust the heat or air conditioning. Make sure it’s installed no more than 48 inches from the floor for better ease of use.

·         “Friendly” appliances. Consider a dishwasher with push-button controls, front-loading washing machines on a 1-foot riser, wall ovens and stove burners with controls on the front of the appliance, and a side-by-side refrigerator, to name a few.

·         Stairlift. This is a solid investment in a piece of safety equipment that can carry individuals up and down the stairs with ease.

·         Replace the toilets. Install models that are higher than the average, or those that have adjustable seats. Also consider a toilet/bidet combo for better hygiene.

·         Kitchen helpers. Lazy Susan, pull-out shelving in lower cabinets, and pull-down shelving for upper cabinets can ensure anyone can reach what they need. Also consider creating under-counter openings so someone in a wheelchair can handle food prep at a lower-than-usual countertop. Open shelving is also a great option.

·         Intercom system. This can help everyone in the household communicate with each other. Anything that provides easier communication, including an emergency alert system, can help with peace of mind.

·         Lower the thresholds. If there are thresholds in the doorways that are raised even the slightest bit, that’s a tripping hazard. A contractor can help you lower the thresholds in your home to create a smooth, hazard-free surface.

·         Add more light switches. Ask an electrician to add in extra light switches, such as an addition one at the end of a hallway or the other side of a room, for ease of ensuring proper lighting.

·         Adjustable shelves. Choose adjustable shelves for closets and pantries that can be moved around as your needs change.

Big Upgrades for Big Impact

If you have plenty of money to spend on making your home as comfortable and accessible as possible, then the sky is the limit in creating the space you need for safety and security. Here are just a few options.

·         Wider doorways. The typical doorway in most homes is too narrow for a wheelchair to glide through comfortably, if at all. Doorways of at least 36-inches wide are recommended for universal design.

·         Walk-in tub. These tubs allow you to walk right into them instead of lifting a leg to step into them. That can help reduce the chance of falls.

·         Roll-in shower. This shower has no threshold; rather, the floor is gently sloped to make sure the water reaches the drain. It’s ideal for those who use a wheelchair.

·         Laundry chute. A chute from the second or third floor down to the laundry room can help eliminate the risk of falling down the stairs with a basket full of clothes.

·         Elevator. An elevator should be wide enough to allow a wheelchair to turn around inside it. This is great for anyone who wants more safety in traveling between the levels of the home.

·         Dumbwaiter. A dumbwaiter from a basement garage to an upper floor can help with transporting packages, groceries, and more.

·         Ramps. Install ramps at entry doors not only for wheelchair access, but for simple peace of mind. Make sure to use non-skid paint or strips as well.

·         Garage or carport. Most garages aren’t tall enough to accommodate an accessible van. Increase the garage door height to nine feet, and widen carports to make it easier to get a van in and out.

Universal design is fantastic for everyone from a single person living alone to a growing family. Making a home more accessible can benefit everyone, not just the elderly. But remember – no matter how safe the home is, emergencies can still occur. That’s why it’s vital to have a personal emergency button alarm in addition to all the other steps you take to help improve safety and security in the home. Starting at just $20 per month, Alert1 makes alert systems for seniors and others affordable for those on any budget.