The first thing I noticed as I approached my new client’s house in her 55+ development was the curved paver steps up to the front door. They would make it very difficult for anyone who has a hard time with balance or who uses a walker, impossible with a wheelchair. The client was a widow with mobility issues; she had previously purchased her home here, thinking it was properly fitted out for years to come. Not so. She now had to decide whether to age in place or move and asked me to evaluate her home. The front steps I encountered, especially with the potential for the pavers to come loose, didn’t bode well.
The layout and features of this home might have been wonderful for a small family or newly married couple. The main bathroom had a shower, tub and vanity, with a separate compartment for the toilet. The problem was, the client was falling down a lot in the bathroom. As a result, she’d had multiple trips to the hospital. She reached out to me in a last-ditch effort to be able to stay in her home.
The Problem With 55+ Homes Today
Home design of 20 or 30 years ago didn’t even consider accessibility or maneuverability. Many times, older homes are difficult to maneuver with a walker, let alone if you have an additional person trying to help you. Today there is more awareness in general, but too many 55+ homes are actually more of a “builder’s special” than a universal design. This is a problem because the consumers are led to believe that these homes have been properly designed for them.
Terms like “single floor living plan” are thrown around with maybe a grab bar here or there. People don’t recognize that these things are not nearly enough until they have an issue. By then, they are already in place, after selling their home of 40 or 50 years and settling in for the duration.
Consider the problem of multiple steps to get into and out of the front door or even the garage; this should be barrier-free. Yet whether this is even possible depends on how the home is positioned on the foundation and it requires working with the topography. If the same home is going to be plunked onto 50 or 100 sites side-by-side, then they won’t all be like the model, which probably has one step or no steps to get into the home. Recall my client had three steps to climb to get into the house. Builders don’t recognize that as an issue. For them, the home was perfect for this age group.
The Poorly Designed Bathroom is the Most Dangerous Place
But it was time to take a look inside the house. On the face of it, my client had a perfectly nice and functional bathroom … for an able-bodied person. When she viewed the property before purchase, she would have seen a beautiful shower … with a seat! So why did she keep falling?
Statistically, the bathroom is the most dangerous place in the house. On closer inspection of the shower, I noticed that the seat was facing the control wall at such a height that the water would spray into my client’s face. Plus, the controls were too far away to easily reach. There was no hand sprayer included and she had installed one, so now there was no shower head anymore. The shower even had a three- or four-inch threshold.
The bathroom featured an overmount bathtub in a large tiled surround, but the tub volume was pretty small. Again, it looked palatial. In fact, sitting in the tub would have you with your knees by your chin. Plus, getting in and out with the tile surround was difficult and had already caused injury. (I’m sure that the glamorous effect of bathrooms like these leads people to pay a lot more for them than they are worth; the fixtures can usually be found at any building supply company.) The toilet compartment was 29 inches wide, which is actually less than the ADA’s required “32-clear.” This was effectively a closet with a toilet and no room to maneuver. The client had already taken the door off. The vanity was nice, but in the afternoon, she would get tired and sit, but had no room for her knees or toes. Last but not least, the floor was glazed. Add water and she was in a dangerous situation.
Heading into the bedroom, the threshold again was not flush. Here was another trip-and-fall hazard. From a builder’s perspective, the problem is that the more appropriate materials, features and fixtures tend to be costlier. However, for someone who wants to age in place, these materials can save a trip to the hospital, rehabilitation, or even the necessity of moving out of your home. I would go further and say that materials and features that help people stay safe are good for all, not just for those in this position. At any age, thinking ahead is good if you plan to stay in your home forever.
Our Design Solutions Provide Long Lasting Comfort
For our design solutions, we flipped the shower and toilet. We substituted a walk-in tub, which in general I’m against but the client was adamant, for the bathtub. What I recommend and had proposed was an ADA stand-alone tub, or to not do a tub, just a really nice shower. (I present as much information as is relevant for my client to make the best decision for that time and budget but the client has the last word.)
My client now has a large walk-in shower with several heads and a seat that meets ADA requirements. She can walk right in, sit or stand, even use a wheelchair if it ever came to that. It’s functional without looking like a hospital shower.
In addition, there is now a wall hung toilet for the right ADA height (replacing a special seat that didn’t look or feel good.) A floating vanity designed to ADA principals looks nicer and gives adequate space for sitting. Grab bars are concealed in the finishes. Finally, the floor tile is now a slip-resistant porcelain instead of the original ceramic.
Between the bathroom and bedroom, we eliminated the threshold for easy transition. However, the floor is now gently pitched in case of any overflow or if you needed to wash the whole room; there’s no spillover to the bedroom or leak to the basement, both of which had happened before.
Deciding Whether to Age in Place or Move?
When someone seeks my help on whether to age in place or move, I have a process. We identify the problems, look at how the client uses the space, conduct our own survey, and put together a plan that incorporates all the needed solutions. A lot of people are in situations similar to my client’s. They have a bathroom that doesn’t really work. It’s difficult for them to maneuver and for others to help them. They try to install grab bars, but they’re never quite right. It’s not too late -- contact me at 267-756-7004 or firstname.lastname@example.org.