Staying, Not Selling? Consider 'Aging in Place' Upgrades

By Paul Bianchina

It's something we'd all just as soon avoid, but there's no getting around it: We're all getting older. And that's something worth keeping in mind as you plan and remodel your home. The concept of "aging in place" -- making changes to your home to make it more comfortable and more adapted to your needs as you age -- is one that's been gaining a lot of popularity, especially in these tough economic times.

There are a number of things you can do, large and small, that will help make your home work for you instead of against you as you age. And many manufacturers are taking note of this trend as well, offering a wide range of innovative and attractive products so that your home can also remain every bit as stylish as you'd like.

Doors can be one of the biggest obstacles to easy movement in the home. Consider opening up smaller doorways to create 34- or 36-inch doorways wherever possible. Another alternative is to use a pair of 18- or even 24-inch pocket doors to make a nice wide opening that's also very attractive. To make doors easier to open, replace doorknobs with levers. Replace exterior steps with simple ramps, or combination step/ramps. With more extensive remodeling projects, also consider making hallways wider -- ideally 48 inches.


Many companies are now offering "comfort-height" toilets, which are about 2 inches taller than standard toilets. These are easier to get on and off of, especially for people with sore backs or weaker legs. Wherever possible, plan on more free space in front of and to the sides of the toilet to allow for easier movement, especially for a walker or wheelchair.

Grab bars

Grab bars are a very useful addition in the bathroom: in the tub, shower and around the toilet. For safety and security, they need to be properly anchored to solid wood, so if you're remodeling your bathroom, be sure to install some blocking in the walls; it's a simple and inexpensive thing to do, even if you're not planning on installing grab bars right away.

Don't like the institutional look of chrome grab bars? A growing number of companies are offering them in colors, ranging from bright white to shiny black and everything in between, in both acrylics and powder-coated metal. There are also some sleek new styles available.

Tubs and showers

There are some simple things you can do to make using your tub or shower easier to use. In addition to grab bars, a seat can be a real plus. These can be portable, or one of the fold-up versions that are attached to the wall. There are many different styles available, in everything from plastic to very stylish teak.

Lever-handle controls are easier to grip and turn than ones with smooth knobs. That applies to the sinks as well as shower and tub controls. Think about where you'll be standing -- or sitting -- in the tub or shower, and place the controls at a convenient location. Make sure that you install anti-scald valves, and install hand-held spray heads. Also, install a shelf at a convenient location for soap and shampoo, to prevent dangerous reaching or stooping over.

Barrier-free shower stalls are well worth considering if you're redoing your bathroom. One company I spoke with at the recent Pacific Coast Builders Show was demonstrating a very innovative, dam-free shower pan that's installed on the floor, then sealed in place with a membrane. The entire bathroom floor and pan are then tiled over, creating a seamless, barrier-free installation that's sleek, attractive and anything but institutional. You can check them out at

Another innovative idea comes from the folks at Kohler, with their new Elevance bathtub. This truly unique tub has a vertically sliding wall in front. The wall drops down to create a chair-height seat for easy access into the tub. Sit down, swing your legs in, then raise the wall -- it takes only 5 pounds of force to lift. Fill the tub, and the special double seals snap into place to seal the wall against leakage. When you're done enjoying your bath, drain the water, then lower the wall for easy access to get out. You can see it here and also get a link to a video of it in action.

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