Universal Home Design for Senior Independence

Mass production of homes began after WW II. To simplify and expedite the process, developers began to create building standards based on military ergonomic data rather than customizing homes for the buyers.

As more and more older adults are choosing to age in place, the need for home modifications to accommodate physical changes in people is growing. Most homes today are designed using military specs that match the physical abilities and stature of the typical 18-year-old male. While these designs may be ideal for younger, taller people, they may not be ideal for older individuals or those dealing with physical and height limitations. Ideally, homes for aging adults would meet universal design standards, which make structures inherently accessible to older people and those with disabilities. Many homeowners, however, hesitate to upgrade existing homes because of the cost.

In most cases, however, homeowners can make some simple modifications that will allow seniors and adults with disabilities to live more comfortably and independently in their homes. Below are just some minimal cost suggestions:

  • Provide railings on both sides of all exterior and interior staircases.
  • Ensure exterior walkways and driveways, interior hallways, and rooms are well lit and free of debris, obstructions, and clutter.
  • Make sure each room has a sufficient number of outlets. This will prevent the senior from using extension cords that may run across a room and cause falls.
  • Switch round doorknobs for lever handles. Lever handles are easier to open when a person is managing arthritis. They are also easier to open with full hands.
  • Install grab bars next to toilets and in showers and tubs.
  • Change out faucets with round knobs to ones with lever handles.
  • Add non-slip surfaces to tubs and shower floors.
  • Provide a shower seat for bathing.
  • Raise electrical outlets and lower light switches so they can be easily reached, even from a sitting position.

The following items may cost more, but their investment may be worth that cost to enable the senior or disabled adult to live in the home:

  • Modify at least one entrance so that it is step free and wheelchair and walker accessible. This also allows for easy passage of wheeled luggage and other items you may be bringing into the home.
  • Modify interior door widths so that they are wheelchair and walker accessible.
  • Replace the toilet with one that is taller, 17 to 19 inches high, to make it easier to use.
  • Replace flooring with non-slip flooring or low-pile carpet that is easy for walkers and wheelchairs to roll over.
  • Ensure the home’s main level has a full bedroom, bathroom, laundry room, kitchen, and living area.
  • Replace bathtubs with walk-in or roll-in showers to accommodate older individuals who have difficulty walking.
  • Lower kitchen cabinets so they can be easily reached.

Younger seniors, or any homeowner, can also start planning early to slowly incorporate universal design in their homes. Rather than trying to quickly renovate a home to accommodate various needs as those needs arise, homeowners can take a proactive approach with needed home maintenance and repairs. The advantage is that as the home needs repair, universal design elements can be incorporated into the existing repair job without a significant increase in cost. For more information on accommodating homes for seniors, check out The AARP Home Fit Guide, referenced below.


  • AARP. (2011). The AARP home fit guide. Retrieved from http://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/livable-communities/documents-2014/AARP-Home-Fit-Guide-2014.pdf.
  • Hollies, D. (n.d.). Universal design. Home Advisor. Retrieved from http://www.homeadvisor.com/article.show.Universal-Design.8330.html.

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