When you chose your current home, you probably chose it based on how well it suited your needs at that time. Maybe it was the three bedrooms or the large back yard that convinced you that this was the place for you. Most likely, you were younger and you had a job that kept you away from home for the better part of the day. Perhaps you had small children or were planning on having kids soon. You probably picked a place that looked nice and seemed easy to maintain and keep clean, while giving you the independence and privacy you desired.
You probably weren't thinking about the day that you would retire and start spending more time in that house. Today, you swear that the back yard gets bigger and bumpier every time you have to mow it. You assume there's something wrong with the carpet in the hallway because you keep tripping on it. You probably didn't anticipate that the kids wouldn't leave home at age 18 and, instead, would treat their bedrooms like free apartments. And your mom finally confided in you that she doesn't like to come over for family functions because she has trouble getting in and out of your bathroom.
Photo by Jay L. Clendenin/Aurora, courtesy of AARP
There is a relatively new philosophy in home building today; it's called "livability" and it is about incorporating architectural and design concepts that make the home safe and accessible for all family members throughout their lives and regardless of their physical conditions. This is great if you have the means to build or buy a new home, but what if you have no desire to leave the house where you've lived your life and raised your family? Incorporating livability concepts into an existing home can involve major renovations and can be costly and unattractive, but there are things you can learn from livable homes that can change the way you think about your home.
AARP and the National Association of Home Builders recently presented the 2011 Livable Communities Award. The honor recognizes communities that incorporate livability features and are convenient to local resources and social centers. While most of us may not be able to incorporate their design elements into our existing houses, the reasons behind those elements can help us look at our homes in a new way.
In Burns Harbor, IN, stands a light green, prairie-style bungalow with a charming front porch. The steps are neither too deep nor too tall and they are framed by sturdy handrails on both sides. It has a small yard with trees and shrubs that are easy to maintain. At the back of the house is a garage and a slip-resistant, low grade, concrete walkway to the back door. Each room has at least five square feet of open space (ideal for maneuvering a wheelchair). Lever-type controls are on the faucets and doors throughout the house. There aren't any handrails in the bathroom, but the builders reinforced the walls around the toilet and shower where they could be installed in the future. In addition to standard-height counters, the kitchen also features a lower, table-height surface that can be used easily from a seated position.
The winning entry from Pasadena, CA, was modified to help its owners age comfortably after they retired. They added a front patio and fitted the front door with a recessed gasket for a no-step entry. The video camera at the front door is linked to a monitor in the vestibule for security. The light switches were all replaced with wide, lighted, rocker-type switches. The bedroom closet includes two clothes rods to make the most of the space, and the upper rod can be pulled down for access from a seated position. The kitchen counters are slightly lower than standard counters. The cabinets underneath have pull-out shelves and the upper units have pull-down shelves. The sink base shelves were designed to be easily removed to allow access by a seated user. The owners replaced their gas range with an electric cooktop to reduce the risk of fire, and they chose a model with front-mounted controls to reduce accidental burns.
In Lakeland, FL, a couple modified their bathroom to accommodate the husband, who had lost both of his legs. Though they gave up closet space, they gained a vanity sink set in a roll-under counter with shelves and drawers within easy reach. The mirror above the sink tilts up and down to maximize view whether one is standing or sitting, tall or short. The private toilet room features a pocket door, which is easier to operate from a wheelchair than a swinging door. The roll-in shower has two showerheads - a fixed overhead one and a handheld sprayer on an adjustable mounting bar. The faucet is temperature-limiting and pressure balanced. They also widened the passage from the bedroom to the bathroom and removed the door.
The innovations in these homes came from real situations faced by real people. They aren't based on theories, but rather on experiences. A livable home maximizes successful independent living for all family members, not just for people with disabilities or old people. It is a home that actually makes it easier to perform everyday living tasks and activities with a minimum amount of effort and with maximum safety. Take a look around your home to see what it does well and what could use some improvement.
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