There are a variety of reasons for homeowners to turn their home into a barrier-free zone for safety reasons. Whether it's an elderly relative coming to stay or homeowners preparing themselves for the years ahead, making a home as accessible as possible is the only way to encourage an independent lifestyle for a higher quality of life.
But homeowners also need to take into account the demographics of their neighborhood as well. If the area is skewing toward an older crowd, making some improvements can also be a great way to increase resale value. Here are a few tips for those looking to eliminate the barriers so seniors can move wherever they want, whenever they want.
One popular idea that has been moving through the real estate world like wildfire is the idea of inclusive design. This theory essentially supports any architectural plans that favor a broad range of people. No matter what age a person happens to be, they can move and live with as few obstacles as possible. It may mean widening the doorways so that a wheelchair could easily move through the home, or eliminating the steps of an entrance. It may mean adding grab bars or changing the handles on the faucet. Far from destroying the aesthetic value of the home, these steps can work with the existing elements and add to the home's charm.
The lighting in the home is a huge component of the safety within and outside of its walls. Older people may experience a narrower field of vision or the inability to make out certain colors. The more lighting around the home, especially in the kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom, the less likely it is for accidents to occur. Outside lighting should also be bright enough for seniors to take out the trash, enter and exit the home, and check on outside utilities, such as the gas meter or utility box.
Making the Home Barrier-Free
At the present time, the Alberta Building Code doesn't include a provision for designing barrier-free homes. Not, unless, that home is being constructed in a barrier-free manner and is being funded by the province or by the Federal Government.
The City of Calgary is all in favour of building affordable, barrier-free homes and actually created a Universal Design Handbook six years ago to make it easy for builders to create homes that are accessible for anyone and everyone no matter what their state of ability. The City has their own internal specs for building affordable and accessible housing, and while they can't control what a private developer does when building a barrier-free building, they can provide guidelines.
The City hopes that local builders and developers will follow the lead of Stepper Custom Homes in Calgary. In 2012, Stepper was given the Access Recognition Award for its work building Calgary's first “visitable” house, which had level points of entry, a zero-entry bath plus wider doorways and hallways to accommodate wheelchairs. These attributes are known as universal design best practices.
Universal design isn't just for people with disabilities. It accommodates people with limited mobility of all ages, such as seniors. The appeal of building this way spans all age groups. Think of couples who have aging parents living under the same roof or mature couples who have the resources and support to age in place. The need is greater. Building a home using universal design elements is much smarter than trying to retrofit a home after the fact. The need for barrier-free living spaces, which includes multi-family buildings as well as single-family homes, is only going to grow in the future particularly since the forecast calls for the senior population in the city to triple by 2030.
Access in the Public Realm
Oddly enough, people with disabilities and those with limited mobility have fewer obstacles to access when out in public in Calgary. The City has adopted Access Design Standards to ensure that all public spaces are inclusive. The city's policies are over and above those stipulated in the Alberta Building Code and at will be conducting an audit to ensure that all buildings owned by the City of Calgary meet this code. Some of the things the City will be looking for are easy of access for those with hearing and vision impairments as well as physical access.
Advocates for Universal Design policies would like to see students of architecture and interior design take courses in universal design which would someday be a mandatory part of degree classes.
How to Plan an Accessible Home
It's difficult to know exactly what needs to be done until a homeowner actually puts themselves in the shoes of a senior citizen. Anything from mobility to hearing troubles can pose a number of problems on any given day. Here are just a few things that may not even occur to homeowners until they begin to actively consider how to make their home barrier-free.
- Outlets and Switches: If a person is in a wheelchair, it may be difficult to reach the outlets or light switches. Standard wall switches typically need to be lowered about 48" while standard outlets need to be raised about 18".
- Indoor air: Seniors may suffer from COPD or severe allergies. While mildew, dust, and germs are harmful for everyone regardless of age, they can be especially difficult for seniors. Consider buying a filter or a dehumidifier to ensure the air quality is consistent.
- Floors: Hardwood floors make it easier for a wheelchair to glide along. Non-slip floors or non-slip strips on stairs can ensure there are fewer slips and falls in the home.
- Doors: A bathroom that swings in can be difficult to close for someone in a wheelchair, especially if the bathroom is small.
- Bathing: Removing tub and adding a curbless shower with multiple shower heads. This allows people to manipulate special shower chairs in the room. Safety flooring ensures a slip-free show surface.
- Toilets: Install a high-rise toilet and remove the vanity under the sink so that a wheelchair can be rolled up under the sink.
- Sinks: Touchless taps and motion detectors allow water and lights to be turned on an off with a touch or a wave of a hand or arm.
- Kitchen: Build kitchen counters at 32 inches rather than 36 inches and make floating counters to accommodate wheelchairs. Often kitchen renovations are farther down the list in terms of Universal Design as bathrooms seem to create the most barriers in the home.
No homeowner can make their home entirely barrier-free for all people, as each senior has different limitations. However, these tips can help homeowners keep in mind the principles of barrier-free living, so they can tackle the biggest problems one at a time.