“How Important Is The Idea Of Reach In Aging In Place Design?”

When we talk about creating aging in place design, two aspects that immediately come to mind are safety and accessibility. We want people to be able to move about safely in their homes and we want them to enjoy the freedom of movement. 

Safety and accessibility are closely related. We are concerned about how people move about and maneuver in their space and that they are able to do it in a reasonably safe way that affords peace of mind and eliminates concerns about falling or personal injury.  Whether someone is ambulatory or relies on a walker or wheelchair (or an assistant) to get into and out of their home and move about within the home, we want them to be able to access their home without any barriers or restrictions.

However, there’s a significant part of mobility that often is overlooked. When we think of mobility, we generally think about the major physical actions that someone makes in their home to move about their space – such as walking, stepping, standing, squatting, sitting, lifting, bending, and standing.

Nevertheless, there is another factor we need to consider – that of reach. How far can someone extend their arm, how easy is it to move their arm, and is their movement at all limited?

Just how important is reach and how much attention is really given to this human performance characteristic?

When we look at the way a home is designed and how it is used, we find that many things in a typical home simply are located too high up from the floor or too far away for a small or average person’s reach or range of motion (typically how far they can rotate their shoulder joint to allow extension of their arm, although there are many other examples or range of motion).

The kitchen is a good place to illustrate the reach and range of motion issue. Upper cabinets typically are installed so that the bottom of the cabinet is 54″ (4½’) above the floor. The countertop height is 36″ or 3′ and the cabinets are located another 18″ above that, resulting in the 54″ height. While many people are at least 6′ tall and have no issue reaching and using the shelves in an upper or wall cabinet, there are many people shorter than this (or those supporting themselves with a walker or can or using a wheelchair) who find it difficult to reach more than the bottom shelf or two.

Reaching the shelves is one thing (as in touching them to show that it can be done). Using them safely is another matter. Retrieving plates, glasses, and dishes from upper cabinets without dropping them or having them slip from one’s grasp can be an issue if someone is needing to stretch to the full extent of their reach. Controlling somewhat heavy object above one’s head and bringing them safely to the countertop or table is a concern also.

It’s not just a matter of extending one’s arm straight up to see how high it will reach. Cabinets are not located directly overhead. They are positioned in front of someones, typically with a 25″ or so countertop that they have to reach over as well. Thus, they are extending their arm at an angle rather than straight up. This necessarily shortens the height at which they can functionally use their cabinets and retrieve items from them.

Even reaching wall outlets, light switches, or window controls located at the back of the counter can be beyond the comfortable arm extension for some people.

Reach is an extremely important aspect of kitchen, bathroom, and other space design in a home that frequently is not considered. As aging in place professionals, we need to keep this in mind to make sure we are creating spaces that are functional, safe, and useful for our clients.

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