Aging In Place: Home Design for Aging Family Members

Lighting Magazine: enLightenment
For additional images of the remodel please click the picture.

Last year Ronnie Rosenbach, vp/marketing of manufacturer Condor Lighting in California, and her husband invited Ronnie’s mother to live with them. That difficult decision was reached after observing how it was becoming increasingly difficult for Ronnie’s mom to manage on her own. Moving her to an assisted living complex just wasn’t the right fit.

“The decision turned out to be the easy part,” Rosenbach quips. Getting her mom physically into their house, however, was the first hurdle.  “We have lots of doors, but they all have steps leading up to them. Plus we have a very steep driveway,” she adds.

Installing a ramp was mandatory, but placement was hampered by the driveway. “Instead of placing the ramp in front of the house – which would have required major work because of the steep driveway – we put it in the back,” Rosenbach explains. “Yes, it takes longer to get to, but there is a paved walkway on the side of the house that leads to the ramp. Some day we may have to put a lift in the garage, but that day isn’t here yet.”

Having a bedroom on the ground floor was another must. The Rosenbachs extensively remodeled the “most accessible room” on the first floor, which fortunately turned out to be closest to the only bathroom on that level.

In order to suit universal design criteria, the bathroom had to be completely gutted – and that meant designing everything to accommodate Rosenbach’s mother in case she were to require a wheelchair in the future.

“That was a lot easier to factor in from the get-go, since the entire space was being rearranged,” Rosenbach states. “We designed the bathroom with a five-foot turning radius from the edge of the vanity. Everything else was designed around that.”

The vanity design allows a wheelchair to roll under it and has a shroud around the hot water pipe to protect someone seated in a wheelchair from potentially burning her skin. It also has an overmount sink with a deep lip to keep the user as dry as possible. The faucet has a vertical handle that swivels, which is a lot easier for arthritic hands to control. The glass tile colors were chosen, in part, to provide maximum contrast to make it easier for a sight-impaired person to find things on the surface of the vanity. In addition, the height of the mirror is lower than average to take into account a person seated in a wheelchair. Similarly, the doorway was widened to 36 inches to comfortably allow a wheelchair to pass through.

The shower arrangement took some careful consideration. “We wanted a roll-in, curbless shower to make it as safe and as accessible as possible,” Rosenbach states. “We designed a 4’ x 5’ shower with both a handheld unit as well as a rainshower overhead. We also ordered a custom L-shaped grab bar so that the person seated could grab it with both hands. This set-up worked like a charm!”

Since there are several people – and generations – living in the home, Rosenbach wanted the remodel to be universal in the truest sense.  “I wanted the design to appeal to anyone,” she comments. “Except for the grab bars, which were an inescapable requirement, there isn’t anything in the bathroom or the bedroom that screams ‘handicapped.’ I chose commercial-grade grab bars for both functional and economical reasons, as they are the sturdiest and the most reasonable.”

Where does one go to find fashionable grab bars? “I spent a lot of time on and it was worth it,” Rosenbach says. “They have an unbelievable selection and their customer service is excellent. I loved all of the luxury finishes.” Believe it or not, both the federal and state ADA requirements and guidelines only apply to commercial installations. “We were relieved that we did not have to follow those requirements because that would have made the design much more complicated,” Rosenbach says, adding, “We did follow the guidelines, though, because they made sense.”

To help lay the ground work, Rosenbach hired an architect to draw up the original plans. “They were then redesigned when we realized that we needed to stay within the existing exterior footprint to bring the cost down,” she comments. “We ended up saving at least $5,000 on the permit process alone. After that portion was done, we parted ways and I did all the research and made the design decisions on my own with some help from my contractor, who had done a few aging-in-place remodels, including one for his grandparents.”

Fortunately, there was a lot of valuable advice available on the Internet as well as from the local community. “I consulted with an occupational therapist who was recommended to me by a disabled friend,” Rosenbach remarks. “She came up with some good ideas such as the L-shaped grab bar and using French doors instead of sliders. She also helped us with the design of the ramp, which was a very complicated project in itself.”

For the most part, it came down to doing the homework. “I asked a lot of questions at the tile showrooms I visited,” Rosenbach says. “Tile was the largest single expense and offered the most options. I found that while the tile people know a lot about tile and grout, they know very little about the requirements for universal design. For example, not one salesperson knew that all commercial tiles must have a Coefficient of Friction (COF) rating, which evaluates how slippery the tile is – and a lot of residential tiles have it as well.”

Rosenbach says she spent what felt like hundreds of hours on the Internet, doing research. “I found a ton of resources, the best of which was the bathroom forum on (sponsored by iVillage). You can post a question there and you get answers from homeowners and remodelers as well as contractors, plumbers, tile installers and more – all willing to give you (mostly) helpful advice,” she notes. “For example, you can enter ‘Toto’ to search for advice on which universal-height toilet model people liked and why (We love our Toto).”

Manufacturer Web sites were another valuable source of information. “Kohler, in particular, offered a lot of helpful advice,” Rosenbach states. “I got the idea for the vanity design – which I had custom-made from bamboo – and the sink from a feature about universal design on I even shopped while I was exhibiting the Condor Lighting line at the HD show in Las Vegas; we were right across from the Moen booth!”

Of course, lighting is a special concern for the elderly. For the overhead lighting, Rosenbach selected Condor Lighting’s Odyssey model, which is comprised of two 18-watt 3000K fluorescents. “Unfortunately, it wasn’t the best choice. We love the light – it’s sleek, contemporary, and the perfect look for the application – it’s just not enough light,” she explains.

As Rosenbach learned during this experience, “When it comes to the aging eye, you cannot have too much light,” she says. “You can have too much glare, however! Plan for much more light than you think you need,” she advises. “In retrospect, we should have had at least twice as much overhead light, but the saving grace is that during the day there is a window about four feet away from the vanity that lets in a lot of daylight to compensate.”

Glare presents a problem, but Rosenbach has a solution. “I knew from the beginning that I wanted to use my favorite Condor Lighting sconces called Totally Tubular as a focal point on either side of the mirror,” she says. “I still love them, but they are a little too glary, so I plan to have the inside sandblasted to soften the light.”

Since Rosenbach’s expertise is in decorative lighting, she visited her local lighting showroom for help with the lighting fixture choices.  “I knew I’d want to use recessed in two areas, so I was really happy to have her advice,” she comments.

Recessed lighting was only installed in the bedroom because Rosenbach wants the option of being able to transform the room back into the den it was formerly. “We have table lamps that Mom uses for general illumination and reading, but when she really wants to see, she switches on the four 75-watt PAR38 halogen recessed lights in the corners of the room (the rest of the cans are four-inch 60-watt PAR30 halogens),” she notes. “Mom doesn’t turn them on too often, but I’m planning on replacing them with LED PAR lamps once they are available with equivalent lumen output.”

Another part of universal design that many people might not be aware of is that light switches should be re-positioned so that someone seated in a wheelchair can operate them easily.

“We lowered the switches to about four feet above floor level,” Rosenbach states. “We didn’t select any fancy controls because I wanted to make it easier for Mom. As it is, it took her at least one month to get used to the switches. There are four: one rocker switch for the fan; one switch with four timer buttons for the heater (Love you, Panasonic WhisperWarm!); one dimple occupancy sensor for the recessed shower light; and the same occupancy sensor for the vanity lights. There is also a rocker switch outside the bathroom to turn on the overhead light.”

Overall, Rosenbach’s greatest success was maintaining the surrounding design aesthetic she had already achieved in her home – a calming, spa-like environment created using sand and sea colors and textures – while creating a truly universal space. Mission accomplished.

For additional information on Lighting basics and the aging eye follow the QR Code or click on the blue text: Aging In Place

For a slide show of the remodel please follow the link to the article Aging In Place: Remodle Photos

Aging In Place: Lighting A Room For Seniors

7 thoughts on “Aging In Place: Home Design for Aging Family Members

  1. Thanks so much for this opportunity to share this very personal and universal (pun intended) story. With some design ingenuity, many homeowners can enhance their quality of life and well-being as well as their physical safety for decades. ~Ronnie Rosenbach

  2. We thank you, Ronnie, for putting a personal “face” to the topic and contributing a lighting industry veteran’s point of view.

  3. Ronnie, I echo Linda’s comment in thanking you for telling your personal story. My mom also moved in with us years ago, and we ran into so many challenges where nothing in our home could accommodate her decreased mobility. I only recently learned about lighting glare–wish I’d known that sooner. Design ingenuity–and education–are vital, so thank you.

  4. I thank you for sharing this, when I finally buy my house the first things on the bucket list of change will be to make the house compatible for the handicap I am 58 years old and don’t expect to gain a companion. I want to make my house ready for me when the time comes. because I won’t have the funds to do the change then.

  5. Thank you for taking out the time to share your experience with us, Copper. At the International Builders Show in Orlando in February, I saw a lot of attention being paid to Aging in Place (one of my favorite products is the bathtub that opens via a door, so you don’t have to step over the ledge). We are going to be publishing more articles on the this topic in the months ahead.  Stay tuned…. would love to hear of the changes you make in your home when the time is right for you.

  6. Great article! We were about to embark on a remodel for a family with the aging father moving in and were considering all these issues. Sadly, the gentleman passed away before plans were completed.

    1. We’re so glad you found this story helpful. We plan to do more like it to address this important topic later on this year. Thank you for taking the time to write in your comments. We really appreciate it!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *