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Aging in place on the farm

Making a home more accessible for an aging resident rather than relocating to an assisted living facility can be cost effective.

Bette Davis hit the nail on the head when she said, "Getting old is not for sissies." The transition can be not only emotionally and physically challenging but also very expensive. 

Housing is one of the primary issues that families have to face when a loved one reaches a certain age. Remaining in the home for as long as possible is the ultimate goal, but that depends on two things: the health of the individual and the accessibility of the home.

There's a movement called universal design, which encourages designers and architects to consider accessibility for aging or disabled residents when designing homes. It makes sense to create a home that will be livable no matter what curveballs life throws your way.

For those living in older homes on the farm, the principles of universal design can be incorporated through updates and remodeling.

Look at the books

Rollie Clarkson has been in the remodeling business for 40 years, and is the owner of Remodeling Contractors in Johnston, Iowa. He is a Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist, a designation by the National Association of Homebuilders. He says these types of upgrades will most likely pay for themselves by allowing homeowners to stay in their houses longer.

According to the 2021 Genworth Financial Cost of Care Survey, the average cost of assisted living in Iowa is $4,500 per month, or $54,000 per year. That's a $1,000 per month increase from the 2015 survey results. The costs go way up if nursing home care is needed. "If you put $75,000 into your house and stay there another five or 10 years, that's quite a return on your investment," Clarkson says.

The savings achieved from staying home will go a long way toward paying for outside help – from housekeeping services, to transportation help, to in-home nursing care.

Do a walk-through

Clarkson suggests taking a walk through your home or your parents' home to survey what needs to be done. Keep an eye out for these areas.

Access to the home and vehicle: Wide exterior doors, handrails, and ramps can make it easier to get in and out of the house. "You want to do anything you can to minimize or eliminate areas that could cause a fall," Clarkson says.

Bathroom: Adding grab bars to an existing bathroom goes a long way toward helping aging homeowners care for themselves. Clarkson also recommends roll-in showers, which come in very handy if a family member of any age suffers a broken leg or other injury. Sinks that allow wheelchairs underneath are also helpful.

Kitchen: Lowering counters for easier wheelchair access is an expensive remodel that may actually decrease resale value. Clarkson says there are other updates that can make cooking easier. Microwaves mounted above the stove might be difficult to reach, for instance, and lead to burns. He suggests moving them onto or under the counter and raising the dishwasher slightly for easier access. Light-color contact paper in drawers and cupboards helps those with vision issues see what's inside.

Laundry: Clarkson points out that many older farmhouses have the washer and dryer in the basement, which is not ideal. He suggests moving them to a mudroom or bathroom and switching to smaller, stackable units or a single unit that both washes and dries if space is an issue.

Floor plan: Unfortunately, older farmhouses don't usually have an open floor plan and may have interior doorways that are too narrow for wheelchairs. The benefit to this type of layout, however, is that a parlor or dining room can usually be transformed into a first-floor bedroom without much work.

Flooring: Many older homes have hardwood floors, which are easier for wheelchairs to maneuver on than carpet. Rugs may be a tripping hazard and should be secured or removed.

Lighting: "Old farmhouses generally aren't lit very well," Clarkson says. "Lamps are often brought in, but the cords can be a tripping hazard." He suggests adding light to corners, closets, walkways, and work spaces. Motion sensors that automatically turn lights on when someone enters the room are a good option. Don't forget about outside lighting. Solar and motion lights help illuminate walkways.

Odds and ends: Clarkson says easy updates like changing from twist doorknobs to levers can make life easier for someone with arthritis. Adding handrails to both sides of stairs instead of just one side helps reduce falls.

Farm shop: Ohio State University Extension offers several tips for applying universal design to the shop, including:

  • Use lever-style door handles instead of twist knobs on all doors.
  • Use large "D" or "L" style handles on barn doors, gates, and storage cabinets.
  • Make sure overhead doors can be controlled with a remote.
  • Utilize floor markings at doorways to assist vision when pulling or backing in equipment to storage or service areas. 
  • Install rocker panel light switches in place of toggle switches, located 42 to 48 inches high. 
  • Make sure all interior and exterior pathways are well lit, and use task lighting in specific work areas. 
  • Eliminate the need for stairs or a ladder by using adjustable-height shelving and cabinets and keeping most frequently used items 18 to 48 inches above the floor.
  • Use utility carts to move parts and tools from one area to another.
  • Choose adjustable or multi-height work benches with at least one work surface 28 inches above the floor so it can be used when seated.
  • Install at sink that is accessible from a seated position, with a lever-style faucet.
  • Allow at least 36 inches of space between storage units or rows of shelving and 60 inches around large equipment.
  • Place switches and outlets on the front of the work bench rather than at the back against the wall.
  • Use visual labeling and color-coded labels for storage, tools, and equipment.
  • Make sure potentially wet areas have non-slip surfaces and install anti-fatigue matting for long periods of standing.
  • Click here to read the complete list and find more tips.

Ask an expert

Clarkson recommends that anyone considering updates to foster aging in place consult a professional. "I advise homeowners of all ages to consider accessibility when remodeling their homes," he says. "It just makes sense to be proactive." 

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