Adapt home for comfort

Consider kitchen sinks with corner drains and countertops that go up or down with the touch of a button.Anyone with a bad back or in a wheelchair would welcome these adjustments.

Kitchen designers have created many practical changes for this hub of the home. Elise Hodson, education co-ordinator at the Design Exchange in downtown Toronto, says many people think these designs are just for people with disabilities.

“But good design can actually make a difference for everybody.”

Easy to use
Other kitchen concepts include:

  • An island with folding butterfly wings
  • A’lazy Susan’ fridge with glass doors.
  • A microwave oven with a slide-over cover
  • A wide-mouth toaster with raised tactile settings
  • Pots, kitchen tools and utensils designed with comfortable, sturdy grips to make handling safer and easier-such as soft-handled scissors from Finland.
  • A timer with large, bold numbers
  • A salad spinner modelled after a toy-spinning top. 

And in case of a minor kitchen accident, there’s even a dispenser that peels the wrapper off a bandage.  Bo for the bathroom and the kitchen, knee-operated levers for turning on faucets are now available for the home. These help people who have limited hand mobility or are in wheelchairs.

Next page: Handles not knobs

Handles not knobs
James Dunsmuir, 62, a CARP member and volunteer with the Canadian Standards Association from Mississauga, Ontario, notes also that European doors have handles “which are infinitely more practical than doorknobs.”

Dunsmuir, who lived in France for five years, points out that turning a doorknob can be most difficult for someone with arthritis or a hand problem, whereas a lever can be operated with one’s elbow.

He has replaced his doorknobs with handles, and most of the taps in his kitchen and bathroom with lever taps.

Dunsmuir says CSA International has several advisory groups involved in charting directions on aging issues. He says the CSA is trying to ‘sensitize’ manufacturers to the needs of senior adults and those with disabilities. And “as this group grows, manufacturers are going to have to revise their thinking” about the concept of universal design.

Falling accidents
Still, despite the obvious advantages, many people resist change.  Victor Helfand, 52, is president of Barrier Free Architecturals in Toronto. He says he has vainly tried to install a $2,000 motorized kitchen cabinet with shelves that go up and down at his mother’s home.
“But she won’t dismantle,” he says despairingly.  “It took me three years to sell her on the idea of putting in grab bars.  My mother, who is 83 years old, will still climb on a chair to take down her dishes, and if she falls, she’ll break her hip.”

Next page: Broken hips common

Broken hips common
Broken hips are the most common cause of accidental death in older Canadians, according to Dr. Geoff Fernie, director of the Centre for Studies in Aging at the Sunnybrook and Women’s College Health Sciences Centre in Toronto.

“We have five times as many people come into our emergency rooms because of a falling accident as we do from a car accident,” he says. “To help reduce the incidence of falls, we’re trying to produce environments that are safer for people.”

Handrail changes
Safe environments include occupant-friendly buildings and improved building codes.  For example, believes building codes should require better-located handrails that are easier to grip. 

“We’ve done studies to determine how handrails should be on stairs, what diameter the rails should be and how far they should be from the wall.  It’s important to be able to clasp around the rail. You need a roughly circular shape,” says Fernie.

“By simulating a fall and studying how we grasp the rail we can understand how to design rails and handgrips-and that influences building codes. But there’s a whole industry making fancy balustrades and rails with ornate shapes that you can’t get your hand around.  And sometimes making changes is a very slow process because there are a lot of vested interests in the area of codes and standards.”

Grab bars at banks
And coming to a banking machine near you, says Fernie, are vertical grab bars to hang on to if you lose your balance or require use of a cane or walker. This feature is included in proposed new standards where older units of bank machines are being replaced.

Helfand, too, stresses the need for basic structural changes in home building to become an integral part of the design. 

“More and more of us want to stay in our own home,” he says. 

And he predicts this trend will result in an increasing demand for mobility and safety features.

Wheelchair friendly
Similarly, Helfand urges senior adults to ask for wider doors that are walker or wheelchair accessible to be installed in their new homes.

Because there’s both a demand and a market, manufacturers will be devoting more attention to designing products for senior adults. A combination of demand, competition and need – backed up by consumer legislation – will set the pace.

Ultimately, we all benefit from comfort, accessibility and practical design that make good sense.