The basic question
The basic question of how well someone can safely and comfortably age in place in their current dwelling of choice seems to center on how accessible that particular home and floor plan is – and whether it needs to be modified for addressing future or potential mobility, cognitive, or sensory concerns and limitations. Accessibility is a complex term for our purposes, so let’s explore two aspects of it.
We are interested in how easy or difficult it will be for someone to use their home safely and easily in the coming months and years. This is going to depend on the home itself (including its layout, condition, size, age, and similar physical features) and the individuals living in the space (physical size, general abilities, cognition, and sensory requirements). Both the home and the individual are important and need to be evaluated to gain a complete picture of how we want to approach the living space.
Some homes may provide relatively good access, lighting, flooring, and navigation already – whether we make any changes or not. Other homes are going to be more difficult for people to use them well – especially when factoring in their specific limiting abilities.
Accessibility is objective as well as subjective
Determining how well someone can use their living space revolves around how accessible that home is – in general concerning the physical features of the home and more specifically for the individuals affected to be able to use it safely.
We can evaluate a living space and look for the width of doorways and hallways, how open passageways are in terms of doors not opening into a space and constricting or impacting it in an adverse way, the stability of the flooring surface and its resistance to slipping on it, how well lit an area is for general illumination and with no shadows being cast by inadequate or poorly located light fixtures, and how easy it might be to open and operate cabinets, drawers, appliances, windows, and other fixtures in the home. These largely are objective assessments because they would apply to people in general.
Then we focus specifically on how the specific occupant of a living space might interact with their home. They may have more limiting abilities, requirements, or needs than would have been noticed in just looking at the features themselves. While the home features generally are accommodating, the occupants may have issues in using specific aspects of their home.
This is the real measure of accessibility – for anyone coming into the home and more specifically for the people who typically are present and need to use it safely and efficiently.
A home assessment – a format that we find already prepared and then use, one we create for ourselves, or a free-form analysis – will guide us throughout a living space and enable us to observe and note items that we like or ones we want to address.
In answering the basic question of how accessible a home might be for aging in place – currently, as well as longer-term – we need to consider many factors. Universal design and visitability guidelines are a great place for us to begin our assessments and recommendations. When we look at what we see in a living space (rental apartment or owner-occupied home), we should look at how well anyone can use the space as we find it and then what might be required to make it better for individual needs and requirements.
As such, there is no comprehensive checklist that we can employ – just a set of best practices or guidelines to follow. This is where we would begin.
We want to generally determine how easy or difficult it might be for anyone to use a space – passageway (hallways and doorways) widths that would be accommodating for anyone using them, the direction doors open so as not to congest the space in any way when they are opened, approaching and opening cabinets and drawers and retrieving items stored in them, and general wayfinding (getting around within the home and having it well-enough illuminated to facilitate that happening safely and easily).
A blended opinion
So, is a home accessible or not – for the present and longer-term? This question, as we have just reviewed is complex and involves considering the home as well as the individuals who use it. They are inseparable in coming to an acceptable conclusion.
Generally, we can start with an examination of the physical space of a home to evaluate how well anyone might be able to use that space safely and effectively. Then, we must overlay the abilities and needs of the individuals using that space to gain the complete answer as to how accessible a home might be for aging in place. After all, aging in place is personal and involves the specific needs of the people in the space.