Around The House, Aging in Place

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With all the juggling I am currently handling in my life — it sounds good to me! I only dream of opting to go to the dining hall if I don’t feel like cooking dinner. I conducted some sporadic research on these type of facilities for my own aging parents and found many suitable alternatives. However, my parents are not interested. They have always been fiercely independent, and regardless of how lovely the facility is and how much easier it would be for them to negotiate daily life, they have made it clear that community living is not for them. They want to stay in their own home-sweet-home. It’s a choice that a lot of seniors prefer.

So, recently, when they both landed in the hospital simultaneously — my Dad with a broken hip and my Mom with a serious blood clot that required major surgery — my sisters and I were faced with the challenge of retrofitting their home to make it “handicapped accessible.” I had studied the codes in school and, more recently, boned up on the accessibility codes when I took the Interior Design Certification Exam, but since most of my work is residential and most of my clients are young and healthy, I have had only a few occasions to use this knowledge.

It is somewhat helpful to know that by code a wheelchair requires a 5-foot turnaround radius and that a minimum door opening is 36 inches but the knowledge is not necessarily applicable to a residential retrofit situation such as my parents are facing. While one or both of them are likely to rely on wheelchairs to get around, their house is hardly designed for wheelchair access, and there is simply not enough space to meet the code requirements. In addition, there are many level changes throughout the house and, while a level change of one or two steps is hardly noticeable to an able-bodied youth, even one step is a total barrier for a wheelchair. (This is why forward-thinking people opt for one-level living when they get to a certain age.)

Our “Design on a Dime” Challenge

My two sisters and myself and one strong, willing nephew who contributed brute strength, set aside one long Sunday afternoon to accomplish our goal of making the house user-friendly for the parents. Our actual deadline was Thursday, when my Dad was scheduled to come home, but we needed to finish the major work in one afternoon!

Fortunately, there is one area of the house that includes an office, the family room, a small full bathroom, and a laundry — all on one level. The access to outside is nearly level so it seemed this was the best place for us to “retrofit” to accommodate my parents new needs. This area can also be reached by a door from the garage but there are two steps up. For the moment, we have installed a pair of railings on either side of the steps and are thinking that we will probably install a ramp at a later date. The ramp will encroach on one of the bays for the two cars but, since they are not driving much, one car will suffice. Next time, the door will be fixed via a garage door repair service to help my parents use it more efficiently. Then, the garage floor coating will be updated so they don’t easily slip.

The Bathroom

My first thought was to renovate the bathroom — it’s a full bath, but the shower is tiny and difficult to manage even for a physically sound person. Luckily, it shares a partition wall with the laundry room and I found I could easily move the partition and steal some space to allow us to enlarge the shower to 3-by-5 feet — big enough for another person to assist with bathing. The long side will have a very minimal curb so that the wheelchair can roll right in — a simple shower curtain on a rod will be used to keep water from splashing out. The simplest way to outfit the shower is to use a handheld showerhead on a rod. The height of the showerhead can be adjusted and more importantly, the showerhead can be removed from the rod to be directed where needed. A continuous grab bar will run around the inside shower walls. Another grab bar will be positioned near the toilet. The vanity will be altered to allow a wheelchair to wheel in under the sink. These changes will be made in the near future. If you’re planning on replacing the plumbing fixtures, you may need professional plumbing services.

Office Becomes Bedroom

After I explained my bathroom renovation plans to my sisters, we began the dubious task of dismantling and re-creating Dad’s office to turn it into the new bedroom. My sister Nancy observed that Dad suffers from “horizontal surface syndrome” meaning that he likes to see all the projects he’s working on simultaneously. To the casual observer it looks like undifferentiated chaos, but actually, the multiple piles of paper arrayed in a ragged circle and occupying every available surface within a five foot radius of his desk chair is a precise systematic filing system. Having promised to preserve the integrity of this particular chaos, I set about making a map of the pile locations.

In the end, we couldn’t resist injecting a bit of linear order; we moved the office to the end of the family room where built-in bookshelves beckoned. After packing up the 1959 edition of the World Book Encyclopedia and two decades worth of books from the Bible Study Group, we found we had enough shelf space to line up at least half of the piles.

We decided to cordon this area off from the rest of the family room by using the love seat (also taken from the office) as a “shield.” The back wasn’t quite high enough to totally hide the mess on the desk but good enough for starters.

The office was now free of clutter and ready to receive the hospital bed that would be arriving shortly. We were able to move Dad’s dresser from his upstairs bedroom, one nightstand, and finally we positioned some lighting, making sure he could read in bed and switch on a light when he entered the room. Although there was no way to meet the five foot turnaround requirement, there was enough room for wheeling in and out and keeping a walker handy.

Family Room Seating

Okay, we were pretty pleased with our handiwork, so we turned our attention to the family part of the family room. Our newly cleaned carpet turned out to be a godsend — yes, there was still a slight haze of stubborn grime in the high traffic areas, but the by-product of getting the rug cleaned was that all the small furniture and accessories had been moved out of the room leaving us almost a “blank slate” to start.

Formerly, the furniture had been arranged “theater style” — all facing the TV and the fireplace — fine for watching the major focal points but not good for conversation or easy access to chairs. First we moved the TV against the long wall opposite the windows. Then we arranged the furniture in a shallow U-shape oriented toward the TV, leaving Dad’s recliner and a large easy chair flanking the fireplace and forming one leg of the “U.” The new more open arrangement would allow Dad plenty of room to approach his recliner in a walker (or wheelchair) and, as his physical therapist has instructed, to slowly rotate in the walker until his rear faced the chair, and then grasp the arms of the chair and lower (not plop) himself down. We then determined that we needed more space within reach of the chair to keep the walker, so that he could position it to get up again. So, we decided to ditch the comfy oversized chair and replace it with a handsome but compact upholstered wood frame arm chair we found in the living room.

My sister, Nancy, tested the sofa and found it too soft for Mom. No wonder she can barely maneuver out of it. We experimented with putting a board (actually a shelf from the computer desk) under the seat and decided it worked just fine. Lastly, we positioned some floor and table lamps for reading and general lighting.

Final Decorative Touches

Mom’s decorating choices tend to be pretty consistent so, even though we pulled pieces in from different rooms, all the colors blended nicely. And, although they look beautiful, we decided not to replace any of the throw rugs — tripping hazards — except maybe one in front of the hearth. Our walls have always been filled with paintings by family and friends — the new furniture layout left some of the art looking lost in space so I took out a hammer and repositioned some of the paintings so they related better to the furniture.

Whew! After a long afternoon we were finished. We made a pot of tea and sat down to enjoy the fruits of our labor. We actually agreed that the room was better than before. My sister Frances remarked that while we had more furniture in the room it actually seemed bigger than before; there must be some design principle at work here she mused — I laughed and just hoped my parents would be pleased too.

Barbara Sternau is an Interior Designer with offices at

37 Main St., Tarrytown, NY

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About the Author: Barbara Sternau