HomeFit: Making Your Home Safe and Livable for All

Posted on 04/02/24 by Linda Lindberg

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What can we do to live in our homes as long as possible? AARP’s HomeFit program provides some great recommendations.

Utilizing the concept of universal design, which seeks to accommodate people of all abilities, was the underlying theme of a recent HomeFit workshop led by AARP Virginia Community Ambassador Jane King. AARP’s HomeFit program provides advice and recommendations on ways older adults can modify their homes to provide comfort, safety, and accommodations for persons of all ages.

Some of the modifications may be quick fixes, while others require professional installation.

Many new home builds offer options for “smart home” features, including virtual assistants like Google Home or Amazon’s Alexa. These virtual assistants, if so equipped, can turn TVs on and off and make program selections, play music, control lights and appliances, adjust thermostats, lock and unlock doors, and make telephone calls--all with simple voice commands.

Even if you don’t have a smart home, said King, virtual assistants can provide some assistance, including playing music, providing weather information, setting alarms and reminders, and even telling jokes and stories.

King began with the entrance to the home, which ideally should have at least one entrance without steps. Although steps are common in many homes, they can be a barrier to people in wheelchairs or who have difficulty with stairs. If the home does not have a zero-step entry point, ramps may be a good alternative.

Depending on landscape conditions, ramps may be permanent or temporary, King said. Threshold ramps might also be an option for navigating slightly-raised thresholds. For wheelchair users, professionally installed platform lifts can be an option to avoid steps.

Other key exterior safety features include adequate lighting and clear house numbers, both of which are necessary for emergency personnel to locate the residence. Entry doors should offer a smooth transition from the outside and provide enough width to accommodate a wheelchair.

A video doorbell helps because it not only allows residents to see who is calling but also enables them to communicate remotely with the visitor, even if the resident is not at home.

Lever-style door handles, for exterior as well as interior doors, are easier to use than doorknobs or thumb-latch handles. Digital door locks eliminate the need to fumble for a key, instead using a code or fingerprint. Some can be unlocked using a smartphone app.

While not all homes have a designated foyer, the home entry, said King, should create a warm and safe welcome, being free of clutter and providing storage. If there is no coat closet close by, a sturdy coat rack or wall hooks can provide space to deposit coats and bags. It’s also helpful to have a rack for shoes and space to deposit keys and mail.

The kitchen is a key room in the house, and should provide “consideration for every diner, visitor, and cook,” said King. She recommends determining how the kitchen is used and making appropriate modifications.

D-shaped cabinet handles and drawer pulls are easier to use than knobs. Cabinets with pull-out drawers on the lower levels provide easier access to items in the back of the cabinets.

As for appliances, a French door refrigerator with a bottom freezer is easier to access than a standard top freezer model. While microwaves mounted above the stove are a common feature in many homes, King recommends a countertop microwave instead, both for access and safety reasons.

Other helpful appliance features include ovens with front controls, although King recommended careful diligence if young children visit.

Having a seated workspace where meals can be prepped is helpful for people in wheelchairs or who have trouble standing. If the kitchen doesn’t have room for a table, one option might be to remove a lower cabinet to accommodate a seated-friendly counter space.

Lever or touch-based kitchen faucets are easier to use than those with separate handles.

Falling in the bathroom can potentially be life threatening, said King. Bathtubs are particularly dangerous because people with limited mobility have trouble accessing them. If a separate shower or tub-to-shower conversion is not possible, a chair that allows access to the tub may be an option.

A shower with a no-step entry is ideal, and the shower should have permanent or portable seating, grab bars, safety strips or non-skip mats, and adjustable height controls to accommodate persons of different heights.

A chair-height toilet is easier to use than a standard toilet. King said another option may be a toilet base riser, which is less expensive than toilet replacement.

Grab bars at strategic locations in the bathroom is essential, but King warned this is not a do-it-yourself job. All grab bars need professional installation.

Other key bathroom safety features include motion-sensor nightlights, no-slip rugs and mats, and lever-style faucets.

“Living spaces should incorporate universal design to focus on safety,” said King. Large furniture items like bookcases should be firmly anchored to the wall to prevent tip-overs. Attach rugs firmly to the floor using non-skid mats or double-stick tape. Leave plenty of room to maneuver among furniture and avoid sharp corners.

The best practice for electrical switches is to place them three to four feet from the floor. Rocker style switches are easier to use than traditional toggle switches, and pull chains or touch control lamps are easier to use than traditional small knobs.

If the home has a formal dining room that isn’t used much for dining, it could be repurposed, perhaps as a den, an office, or even a bedroom. Wherever dining in the home takes place, chairs should be sturdy and easy to move. King recommends using trays to carry items from the kitchen to the dining space.

Hallways and stairways should have light switches at both ends. Locating plug-in or battery-operated dusk to dawn or motion sensor nightlights at various intervals helps with safety. Stairways should ideally have handrails on both sides, and the ends of the rails should extend beyond the stairs for safety.

Stairs with carpeting or nonslip treads are safest, and any carpeting should be secured with carpet tape or a nonslip mat.

Stairlifts or elevators are an option for two-story homes; both need professional installation. If the home has two stacked closets, an elevator might be an option. Stairlifts are less expensive than elevators, and used units may be available.

Laundry rooms are best located near the main bedroom, but many older homes have laundry units in the basement. Stairlifts may be an option for basement laundry access if a main floor laundry is not feasible. Consider placement of the washer and dryer, including equipment door openings. Platform bases can assist in loading or unloading units.

More information about ways to make your home safe and comfortable for all ages is available at

This story is provided by AARP Virginia. Visit the AARP Virginia page for more news, events, and programs affecting retirement, health care, and more.

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