Smart home advice for seniors

Jura Koncius / The Washington Post /

Published Mar 15, 2013 at 05:00AM

The AARP’s Amy Levner, an expert on good home design options for seniors, joined staff writer Jura Koncius on The Washington Post’s Home Front online chat. Here is an edited excerpt.

Q: What are three things you can do to help senior parents be safer in their own homes?

A: 1. Bathrooms. This is the most dangerous room in the house for any family member, honestly. Check flooring, ease of using the bath and shower — particularly getting in and out of it; consider a “comfort height” toilet; install grab bars (many look like towel racks now, and again we could ALL use these) — be sure to have a professional do this and make sure they’re properly secured behind the wall.

2. Kitchen. Again, make sure it’s easy to use — is food ready accessible, are the controls on appliances intuitive, is it easy to maneuver around the area?

3. First-floor living. Is there a bedroom, access to a full bath and the kitchen on the main floor?

Also know that the ideal is a step-free entry into the house (via a garage is fine).

We have some great checklists here:

Q: My parents are in their mid-70s and are casually looking for a smaller home. We looked at one home that had just been remodeled. The kitchen was beautiful but had a Wolf range. My house has a Wolf range, and the door is so incredibly heavy that my mom can’t open or shut it. I told my mom that she couldn’t buy the house because she’d never be able to use the oven!

A. This is a great point. Appliances need to be user-friendly for everyone, or they won’t be used! Be sure to test things like opening and closing ovens, fridges, dishwashers, etc., when you’re shopping.

Q: Are there designers or contractors who specialize in designing for seniors? Where can I find one?

A: Yes. Certified Aging in Place Specialists — CAPS — are remodelors who specialize in this work. Here’s a link: Designers can be found here: (interior deisgners) and (kitchen and bath).

Q: We’ve lived in our home for 30 years and want to live here for another 30. Our kitchen hasn’t been renovated for some time and we want to open it up and make it a real living space. Can you give us a few tips on what to include?

A: Good for you! Opening up a cramped kitchen will make it more spacious and ergonomic, and that much more enjoyable to spend time in with family and friends. Here are a three key design features to include, if you have the space:

• Roomy 48 inches aisles (good for multiple cooks, mobility aides, baby carriages).

• Multiple height countertops for standing and seated usage.

• Place to dine (at the island, countertop or table).

Q: Is there such a thing as an attractive, stylish grab bar for a standing shower?

A: Yes! There are all kinds of finishes and styles now — you’d be amazed. Chrome, brushed nickel, etc. — whatever matches your style. They also have nice design touches that help them blend into the decor. They look like extra towel racks. My hope is that they will become a standard part of good design in a bathroom. Baths are so slippery, we could ALL use more grab bars.

Q: Can you describe the best choice for a shower when renovating a bathroom for a couple in their 60s?

A: I’d recommend a shower with a no-step entry, and non-slip flooring, easy to use faucets, blocking in the walls for grab-bars. If there’s room, a seat is nice, too. Don’t forget good lighting.

Q: Given that seniors may be adverse to change, how does one get them to use new technology in their homes that may be a benefit to them? Like pre-setting the temperature for their shower.

A: Our research shows that older people will adopt new technologies as long as they help them stay independent. I wouldn’t automatically assume that seniors aren’t willing to change. They do need patient guidance at times, and that can be from family members, friends or even local technology classes.

Q: Since the trend is for seniors to stay in their homes, what do you see as possibly the one major smart design item that will be most beneficial to them that is not available yet?

A: We’re just starting to hear about things like refrigerators that will be able to sense when you’re low on milk for example, and can send that information to you. How great would that be for a family member looking after a loved one? Along those lines, the monitoring systems that alert you if your mom hasn’t been up and around the house per her normal routine are coming, too.

Q: My house has recessed lighting in the family room and covered overhead lights in hallways. The new light bulbs, which have been mandated, cannot be used in enclosed lighting. I have hoarded the standard bulbs for a few years because I cannot afford to rewire the entire house. Also, any ideas for hiring someone to change ceiling light bulbs? I usually wait until a tall relative is visiting but he only comes once a year.

A: That’s frustrating. I know that there are new light bulbs constantly coming onto the market, so I’d check again if you haven’t in a while. I’m impressed by LED lighting in particular — comes in all sorts of light “colors” that are softer than the original harsh CFC lights, and can last for upwards of 20 years, so you don’t have to rely on those relatives or hire a handyman to come change a bulb for you! You may want to talk to an electrician to see how expensive changing those fixtures would be.