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Aging in Place: How to Live Stylishly and Comfortably in Your Golden Years

Interior designer Paige Lewis incorporated best practices for aging in place in a Scottsdale couple’s master bathroom: a curbless shower entryway wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair; strategic locations for niches, grab bars and a handheld shower; and textured tile floors to prevent slipping.

With a little planning, you can ensure your home will continue to fit your needs for years to come.

America—and Arizona—is aging. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s National Population Projections, in the next few decades, 1 in every 5 residents will be older than age 65—currently, roughly 10,000 people cross that age threshold every day.

As people age, their needs change. In the past, it was common to move into retirement homes or assisted-living facilities, but according to AARP, 90% of today’s mature homeowners want to stay in their houses and 80% believe that their current residence is where they will always live. Unfortunately, most homes were not built to accommodate the changes that occur later in life.

That’s where the concept of “aging in place” comes in. This design principle, also known as “living in place” and “universal design,” is defined as “the ability to live in one’s own home and community safely, independently and comfortably, regardless of age, income or ability level.”

Notes Erik Listou, co-founder of the Living in Place Institute, a nonprofit organization providing education and awareness about home design and products that improve safety, comfort and accessibility. “People have realized in recent years that the built environment plays an important role in our overall wellness.” Here is a look at some subtle changes that can be made to any dwelling—whether it’s a new build or a remodel—that will allow its owners to maintain their independence without sacrificing style.

En-Suite Safety

Bathrooms are one of the most highly used spaces in the home. They’re also the most dangerous, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 180,000 emergency room visits each year are due to slips and falls. Stepping in or out of a bathtub, inadequate lighting, narrow doors and improper use of color contrast can all be causes of falls. Now add in mobility and sight issues that come with aging, and you have a recipe for injury.

Installing grab bars, comfort-height toilets and accessible showers are the Top 3 aging-in-place projects, says the National Association of Home Builders. “As we age, we want to surround ourselves with what we think is beautiful,” explains interior designer Barbara Kaplan. “People don’t want to feel as though their home has been created for an old person. The grab bars I put into showers are the most beautiful ones I can find. They don’t look like the handicap bars of the old days.” Many hardware manufacturers now offer bars that mimic the look of stylish towel bars, in colors such as matte black and brushed gold.

Bonnie Lewis, an interior designer who specializes in senior living, recommends professional installation. “Hanging grab bars is not like hanging a heavy picture,” she says. “And using the suction cup version is worse than not having any bars at all, because it provides a false sense of security. If you fall and grab it, it’s going to go down with you.”

Another cause of falls is a change in flooring color. “When you walk from the bathroom into the hallway or bedroom, there’s often a high color contrast,” notes Listou. “People instinctively don’t like to step into a dark space, so moving from a white bathroom floor onto a dark brown wood floor can cause a misstep.”

Before. A tight entry and water closet restrict walker and wheelchair access.
Interior designer Bonnie Lewis added safety and accessibility design features, including a wide entry, no-step shower, slip-resistant flooring, support fixtures and abundant lighting.
Kitchen in Control

Like the bathroom, the kitchen is also a high-traffic area that can present obstacles as one ages. Upper and lower cabinets necessitate reaching and bending, knobs and faucet handles require grasping with arthritic hands, and shiny surfaces cause reflections that can fool the eye.

The best place to start when designing or renovating a kitchen is lighting and surface materials. “Make sure there’s sufficient lighting underneath the upper cabinets and the toe kicks,” Listou says. This ensures even illumination throughout the room, even in the darkest corners. “You also want to reduce the glare from countertops. A high-gloss finish will cause what the medical community calls a ‘veiling reflection,’ a reduction in contrast that obscures details.” Matte countertops in easy-to-maintain natural and man-made materials, and cabinets in soft wood tones and cheery paint hues offer looks that range from traditional to trendy.

“Color can also affect mood and appetite, which can become issues with people as they get older,” Lewis remarks.

Touchless and lever faucets and push-to-open cabinets not only simplify everyday tasks, but they can also add character to any home. “Turning a knob on a faucet is hard when your hands are wet. A lever makes it easier, even if you don’t have gripping issues,” Kaplan says. “Is a single handle necessary when you have arthritis? Yes. But why not add these things to your house when you’re younger to make your life better?”

Listou points out that, if cabinets do have knobs or handles, make sure they don’t protrude, as they can catch on clothing and cause accidents. He also recommends installing pull-down inserts in upper cabinets to eliminate the need for reaching for heavy or breakable items. “A good rule throughout the house is ‘nose to knees.’ There should be nothing above the nose or below the knees,” he explains. “Inserts allow a person to pull everything in the cabinet down to the countertop.”

Easy on the Eyes

As we age, it becomes more difficult to get up to switch on lights. Voice assistants, such as Amazon Alexa and Google Home, allow senior homeowners to control lights, window treatments and other electronics with simple commands.

“This is something I practice in my own home,” Kaplan says. “I have all my lights on timers, so when I come home, I never enter a dark house. And when it’s my bedtime, they automatically dim and then turn off. This helps me wind down and relax.” The designer notes that the changing lights have a calming effect that can result in a better sleep. “A lot of older people have trouble sleeping, and having the lights not be so bright in the evening regulates melatonin.”

Whether you’re purchasing a new home or planning to update your current residence, these simple modifications can ensure a safe environment—now and in the future.

“The cost of living in a care home can range between $3,500 and $12,000 per month, depending on the level of care needed and amenities offered,” Lewis comments. “The return on investment for aging-in-place design and remodeling, when beautifully executed by a qualified professional, will cost less than a year of assisted-living rent and increase the overall value of the home.”

For more information, see Sources.

The High Life

While the breadth, quality and style of accessibility and safety features for residential design are allowing aging homeowners to remain in their family abodes for longer than any previous generation, senior living facilities are also stepping up their game in an effort to attract members of the baby-boomer generation—now ages 57-75—who are looking to downsize but who don’t wish to give up all of the conveniences and activities of everyday life.

Mirabella at ASU, on the grounds of Arizona State University in Tempe, signals an exciting change in senior living. The 630,000-square-foot, 20-story high-rise complex, which welcomed its first residents in December 2020, was developed in partnership with the ASU Foundation. It was designed to cater to adults ages 62 and older who wish to maintain an active and intellectually stimulating lifestyle.

“There’s a certain energy that comes with living on a university campus,” says Paul Riepma, senior vice president of sales for Pacific Retirement Services. Each person who lives at Mirabella has a student ID card that provides them access to about 200 different classes, passes to the school’s library and museum, and preferred seating at entertainment and sporting events.

In addition to 252 luxury apartments, each of which is outfitted with safety features, such as call buttons in the bathrooms, the property offers all the amenities of a first-class resort, including a spa, salon, gym, indoor swimming pool and multiple dining options, ranging from a casual bistro to formal fine dining. Rotating artwork by ASU students lines the halls and public spaces. “We didn’t want this to look like an old folks home,” Riepma notes.

Of course, as seniors age, they may experience health challenges that require care. The first step of occupancy at Mirabella is independent living, but as acuity decreases, the residents can then move into assisted living apartments, memory care or skilled nursing rooms, or even hospice, all with 24-hour onsite medical professionals.

Wayne and Pencie Culver were one of the first couples to sign up for this exciting new community and are pleased with their decision.

“There are just so many experiences that are right at your fingertips, such as the Grady Gammage Memorial Auditorium for culture, educational opportunities and all my sports,” says Wayne, an ASU alum and former Silverleaf resident. “I think it’s good for our brains to be engaged and have all of this available to us.”

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