“It’s great. It was the best change ever,” Port told the AJC. “I wish we’d done it 30 years ago.”
The Ports worked with Cathy Morrow, owner of Room Reflections in metro Atlanta, to streamline their living area while incorporating items they’d owned and cherished for years.
“It feels better when there’s a little bit of space around things,” Morrow said of her process. “If a room breathes a little bit, usually, we breathe better in it without being a minimalist.”
For older adults looking to stay in homes, which they’ve sometimes owned for decades, changes to make a dwelling safer and more functional can range from small shifts in the kitchen or bathroom to top-to-bottom adjustments. This is a tour of the possibilities for homes that need to accommodate their senior occupants for the long haul.
In the kitchen, it’s easier to unload pots and pans with pullout shelves in lower cabinets.
“They give you so much more mobility and ease of use than you think,” Morrow said.
A renovation might include eliminating squatting altogether by installing wider cabinets at a higher height with drawers big enough for pans, she said.
Medina Jett, co-founder of Atlanta-based TDS Builders, agrees about easier-to-reach cabinets, especially for people using wheelchairs. She includes floor-to-ceiling pantries in the dwellings she purchases and then rents out as short-term accommodations — many times to older adults.
“I always make sure that we have pantries that start at the floor, and it’s sort of a floor cabinet that makes it easy to access things that they need on a daily basis,” she said.
Bathrooms can be hazardous places as homeowners’ mobility and flexibility diminish.
For showers, Morrow recommends smaller tiles with more grout for grip. Prefabbed, nonslip shower floors, she pointed out, actually eliminate leaks around grout and the need to clean grout; prefabbed shower walls are easier to clean for the same reason.
Floors should be matte, unpolished tile no bigger than 12 inches by 24 inches so there’s a decent amount of grout for grip, she said. And key in preserving safety in a place where it’s easy to slip are strategically placed grab bars, but they should be correctly sistered against the underlying structure to support a person’s weight, Morrow cautioned.
“If someone is slipping and accidentally just grabs a towel bar, it’s going to come out of the wall and come down with them,” she said.
She said vertical grab bars where the tile or shower door ends are also helpful.
Comfort-height toilets at 17 to 19 inches high are nice for older adults with knee and hip issues, and specially designed and installed toilet paper holders can double as grab bars there, she said.
Retrofitting a shower unit, depending on the adaptability of existing plumbing, with a removable wand can let users shower or wash a pet more easily. Magnetized versions are also easy to put back. Built-out corner triangle seats can relieve fatigue and prevent falls, she said, and there are folding seats for newer showers, but they must be mounted properly to hold an adult’s weight.
Morrow puts extra focus on lighting.
“Most older kitchens absolutely do not have enough light in them, especially the task lighting shining right down on the counters,” she said.
She recommends installing strip LED lighting and hardwiring it into outlets or a switch so a wire isn’t visible, but users can cut or chop confidently. In bathrooms, homeowners can have lights on a dimmer — sometimes recessed with an exhaust fan — that can get very bright if necessary, or they can add a fixture that gives them another bulb.
“Like, who doesn’t want to be able to find the soap? I don’t need ambiance of being in the darkness when I take a shower,” Morrow said.
Jett pays particular attention to transition areas. It’s important to make sure key doorways are wider to accommodate wheelchairs and walkers. She makes sure to have at least one wheelchair-accessible bathroom with a widened doorway and possibly a roll-in shower. Having one or even two bedrooms on the main floor to eliminate the challenge of stairs is great, too, she said. She’s added bedrooms onto older homes for this purpose, and she’s even turned one main-floor bedroom into two.
“I’ve heard people’s stories of their family trying to bring ramps so that they could get into the house with the wheelchair, whereas with our rental properties, it’s an easy wheel right in from the ground level, and they don’t have to deal with all of that,” she said.
And for those looking to age in place, adding accommodations for live-in caretakers is a great step to take earlier than later, Jett said.
“They can easily call for help if they’re in their room and need help for something,” she said.
She sees a lot of these shifts as common-sense solutions, and she gets overwhelmingly positive feedback from a population she feels sometimes has to forgo travel opportunities because of a lack of accommodation.
“The comments that I get from the elderly who rent our Airbnbs are, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you! You made our trip so much more enjoyable. I felt like I could do what I needed to do,’” she said.
Upgrades put into practice
In Dunwoody, the Ports are enjoying lots of the upgrades both designers espouse.
At Morrow’s urging, they added a washable rug in their dining room to ensure easier cleanup of spills. They’ve lowered the chance of tripping owing to a high-quality rug pad underneath. The luxury vinyl flooring they went with is low-maintenance and easy to clean, and the new performance fabrics on their sofas will hold up to grandkids, Port said.
Past health challenges led the couple to install a chair lift, which proved helpful in transporting laundry between floors. And a surgery earlier this year, which put Port temporarily on a walker, made them appreciate the widened doorways and pathways Morrow advocated for, along with an outdoor ramp. Swiveling chairs have allowed Port to maintain conversations with others that she would have had trouble with in the past because of her health.
The changes have come just in time as the couple has a son who plans to stay local after marrying early next year. They’re hoping for grandkids to play eventually on those rugs and couches.
“We wanted a space where everybody could sit together and be comfortable,” Port said.
Morrow made sure treasured pieces, such as art deco-style glass tables, stayed, along with lots of memorabilia on the couple’s bookcases. Keeping personal aesthetics at the forefront helps during transitions, she said.
“I think we all have different chapters in our life, and when you’re in between those chapters is when you’re more unsure of yourself,” she said. “You don’t want to start to feel not relevant. You want to know you’ve still got it.”