Features of the “Age Proof” House

Mary S. Pickett and Mary K. Sullivan
Iowa State University

Most older people want to stay in their own homes as long as possible; they enjoy the independence and individuality of living in familiar surroundings.

So, if you're planning a home for your retirement years or for your parents, then we'd like to look at what older homemakers have told us are needs of those aged 65 and beyond.

Uppermost are convenience, comfort and safety — good ideas for people of any age. The room of most concern is the kitchen where they, like other homemakers, spend a good share of their time.

What are their concerns based on? The senses grow duller more than the individual realizes. Eyesight, hearing, smelling and even the sense of touch isn't what it used to be.

You're not as agile you slow down — you don't have the zip you once had. Even your sense of balance becomes affected.

In a survey, 85 homemakers, age 65 and over, were asked their preferences in housing and equipment. The following advice is from these interviews.

Convenience and comfort

Convenience and comfort pretty much go hand-in-hand. If your house is built for convenience, then it's certain to be comfortable to live in. In the survey, the older homemakers indicated they wanted the following:

  • A small kitchen. They didn't want a big kitchen that required a lot of walking between the range and the sink and refrigerator to get a meal.
  • Adequate counter space. They asked for plenty of "elbow room" — no crowded work area in their kitchens. It's easy for counter space to get cluttered with a little bit of everything, leaving no room for mixing and stirring.
  • Adequate storage within "easy reach." Some didn't want wall cabinets — the bottom shelves were easier for them to use. It seems easier for them to stoop than to stretch. As age increases, it's more difficult to maintain equilibrium. When reaching for objects, the body's center of gravity shifts, requiring the person to maintain balance in a new position. This is hard for an older person who does not move quickly, and it often causes falls.
  • Planned storage. They did not want to expend their energy trying to find a place for things. Nor do they want to hunt endlessly for something they had to stack in the back of a closet because storage was not well planned.
  • Storage that's easy to access. They say they want sliding doors on storage areas. Sliding doors require less finger control and can be easier to operate than door handles or hard-to-open magnetic latches.
  • A kitchen you can eat in. Again, they want to conserve energy. They are all for some sort of an eating area right in the kitchen — no matter how small.
  • A utility area near the kitchen or bath. Keep the laundry facilities on the same floor level as the main living area — not in the basement. And they'd prefer not to have to take their wash downtown to a self-service laundry either. They also mentioned they'd like a place to hang clothes, to store laundry aids and to fold clean clothes.

It's better to have some separation between the laundry area and the spot where food is being prepared. This lessens the danger of food contamination from soiled clothes. So keeping the laundry equipment in an area separated from the kitchen proper is best for health's sake.

  • A small house to conserve energy. Though they want a small house, in contrast they want large, open and well-arranged interior spaces. Added to this was a central heating system, indoor plumbing and facilities for having an ample supply of hot water.

Convenience in care

The work involved in maintaining a home brought ideas for conserving energy. To make the job easier, the homemakers interviewed listed these:

  • A one-story house
    Everything they have to do, they want to be able to do it on one floor, and they want no second story windows to clean.
  • Aluminum storm windows and screens
    They felt aluminum promised the least amount of care — no corrosion or rust and no need of paint. They showed a preference, too, for combination units that can be cleaned and replaced from the inside of the house.
  • Brick or aluminum siding
    In choosing either brick or aluminum, they could see the absolute minimum in cost of maintenance. Most of their exterior painting problems would be eliminated.
  • Draperies or curtains instead of venetian blinds
    Draperies are easier to dust and adjust while venetian blinds can be a puzzle difficult to cope with.
  • Low ceilings
    These women want low ceilings to avoid climbing on ladders and stools. Even on solid footing balance is difficult for an older person to maintain.
  • Flooring materials easy to care for
    They want smooth floor surfaces, like linoleum, vinyl or other easy-care material, in their work areas. The biggest concern is that floors are not slippery. Thin coats of wax used more frequently cut down on slippage.

Safety of the house

Safety was important. Things that do not concern younger homemakers can be dangerous to an older person. Try to avoid the following safety hazards:

  • Don't have steps
    Keep everything on one level, if possible. If steps are necessary, keep the step up as shallow as you can. The step needs to be deep and flat for easy balance. Older people often have to rest in the middle of the stairs, and they need to be able to place both feet completely on the step for comfortable support. Overhangs on steps are toe-and-heel catchers that contribute to falls.
  • Exceptionally good light is needed everywhere, especially in the kitchen, laundry, other work areas and over steps
    As age progresses, vision changes. In general, after age 40, the eye functions best for distant viewing. So, to bring close-up work into sharper focus, they need the best light possible, without shadows.

Good light is one of the best and least-expensive insurance's against falls, and should be used in ample supply throughout the home. Often older homemakers need good light to read or sew. If the rest of the room is dimly lit, they may fall because their eyes cannot adjust quickly enough.

  • Protect entryways
    Shelters over entryways protect the steps from the weather. It's difficult to be sure-footed on floor surfaces covered with rain, snow or ice. And good lights over entryways offer protection, too. Not only can one see what the entry walking surface is like, but visitors at the door can be seen clearly.

Safety of utilities

Safety and convenience in house utilities has long been the concern of many homemakers and include the following:

  • Not having to learn to use a new kind of fuel
    If she's been used to cooking with gas or electricity, she's not content to switch. She feels unsure of herself in re-learning a whole new process of use and care.

However, physical limitations need to be considered. A dull sense of smell may make it impossible for the older person to detect odors associated with gas leaks.

  • A circuit breaker box rather than a fuse box
    When the lights go out, it's easier to restore electricity with the circuit breaker than to hunt for fuses. It's difficult to see which fuse is burned out and also to read the size for replacement. Also, chances of shock are smaller in re-connecting a circuit breaker than they are in replacing a fuse if standing on a damp floor.
  • Low-pitched and long-ringing doorbells and telephones
    Lower tones can be generally be heard better than hi tones. And longer rings give the older person a chance to get to the telephone or door without a feeling of having to hurry.

Plan for convenience, comfort and safety. It will improve the home environment and give maximum livability for later years.

Just as people prepare for financial security and best possible physical health, so should they prepare for appropriate housing needs.