I read the backs of cereal boxes, those little flyers that get stuck in your door when you’re out of town, and the random postings on bulletin boards outside grocery stories. Maybe I read them so you don’t have to.
That said, please read this. It’s about ensuring everyday, in-home comfort and safety in your final decades. It’s the beginning of a new year, so I am choosing to begin with an often-unasked question related to getting old. Where do you want to live when you‘re 85 plus? I suspect most people will say, ”I want to live independently; ideally in my own house or apartment, just like I do now.” That’s how I would respond.
Enter the concept of “universal design.” It basically means your living environment is physically accessible to you regardless of your age and physical abilities or disabilities. It includes things like 36-inch-wide doors — at least three of them: front door, bathroom and the room you sleep in. It includes occupancy lighting that turns on automatically when you enter a room. It might involve a raised-height toilet or a levered door handle. Maybe lots of them.
As life expectancy and survival rates from disease and disability increase, I predict universal design is going to get more discussion. The reality is this: If you want to stay in your current home until the end of your years, you may need to initiate structural changes. At first glance the price tag may seem high. When you calculate cost avoidance, not so much. A $5,000 to $10,000 bathroom remodel you didn’t think you needed can start looking like a real deal.
Think about it this way. Met Life Foundation (www.metlife.org) regularly looks at the cost of long-term care and found the average cost in a nursing home in 2012 was more than $87,000 a year and rising. Assisted-living situations average $42,000 a year. And those are not necessarily private rooms. Depending on care needs, some of these costs are notably higher.
Typically the folks who administer these living environments have figured out universal design. But if you are looking at that option for later-in-life residential living, be sure to double-check — www.aarp.org has some useful (very readable) fact sheets.
I am impressed by many of the elder-living facilities I have encountered, but my point today is that some aging adults may end up moving there solely because of the lack of an accessible downstairs bathroom, stairs that are hard to navigate, or cupboards that are too high. Sure, modifying your home requires an investment. But you can calculate the cost-benefit fairly easily. And when you throw in the likelihood any universal design modification will make your house more marketable to any demographic, remodeling decisions are a whole lot easier.
Resist the urge not to think about how wide your doorways need to be and your possible need for at least one no-step entry. Embrace the idea of more lighting or a safer bathroom. Call it paying attention to universal design — or maybe just call it smart.
— Sharon Johnson is a Oregon State University associate professor emeritus and the Executive Director of Age-Friendly Innovators. Reach her at Sharon@agefriendlyinnovators.org.