An Ideal Home

Rosemarie Rossetti shares excerpts from her book, “Universal Design Toolkit” for those considering retirement and accessible home design

By Rosemarie Rossetti, PhD

People expect “home” to provide independence, accessibility, safety and peace of mind – regardless of disabilities, limitations or health challenges. Many are choosing to stay in their homes for as long as possible to avoid moving to independent living and senior-care communities.

This movement isn’t restricted to people who are aging. It applies, as well, to patients with sudden health changes – due to accidents, stroke, spinal cord injury – as well as to those with degenerative conditions such as arthritis, amyotrophic laterals sclerosis (ALS), dementia, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s Disease.

For people who desire to remain at home, will the house where they are living sustain their independence for years to come? Could they come home after a hospital visit to recover from surgery or illness, or would they need to go to a rehabilitation or nursing facility? As mobility diminishes, what home modifications and changes would be essential to ensure accessibility and safety?


The American population is graying. One in three Americans is now 50 or older — by 2030, one in five will be 65+. The number of people 65 and older in the United States is expected to increase to 55 million in 2020; to some 70 million by 2030, and to 88.5 million — or 20 percent of the population — in 2050. (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that one in five Americans—about 53 million people has a disability of some kind. The American Community Survey in 2014 indicated that 36% of the U.S. population 65 or older has a disability. Additionally, 23% had difficulty walking or climbing stairs.

33 million Americans have a disability that makes it difficult for them to carry out daily activities.

2.2 million people in the United States depend on a wheelchair for day-to-day tasks and mobility.

6.5 million people use a cane, a walker, or crutches to assist with their mobility.

An AARP study in 2014 indicated 87 percent of adults age 65+ want to stay in their current home and community as they age. Among people age 50 to 64, 71 percent of people want to age in place. The United States of Aging survey in 2012 showed that approximately 90 percent of seniors intend to continue living in their current homes for the next five to 10 years.

People of all ages and abilities need to live in a home safely, independently and comfortably.


There are many terms people read about and use when communicating about homes that enable families to live in their homes during their retirement. The terms include: universal design, accessible design, aging in place, living in place, age friendly, and forever home.

Aging in place is the ability to live in one’s own home and community safely, independently, and comfortably, regardless of age, income or ability level.

The concept of universal design has been embraced by architects, interior designers, and other design and building professionals since the 1980s. The definition of universal design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. Universal design should be transparent design. Universal design is an approach to planning that embraces diversity and inclusion by providing for equitable use while promoting efficiency, flexibility and sustainability. Universal design is human-centered design, accommodating people of all sizes, ages and abilities.

Universal design takes as many needs as possible into consideration in the design process.  The broadest spectrum of users is considered. It traditionally focuses on creating non-stigmatizing, equitable designs.  Based on the premise that the environment can level the playing field for people with disabilities, it provides a broader, yet complementary approach to design.  It is age and content appropriate, aesthetically pleasing, affordable, and has a broad market appeal.

Environmental factors in homes can be disabling or enabling.  People need to design to human strengths, while accommodating for individual weaknesses and limitations.  Design to work with, support, and enhance human functioning.

Life is easier when a home includes universal design features and products.


By following universal design guidelines, a home will provide an improved quality of life for all occupants, not only those with disabilities. In addition to having more freedom in a home due to universal design, a home may also provide improved accessibility, convenience, safety, restore human dignity and provide peace of mind.

As people plan to remodel or build a new home usability features need to be top of mind in the design phase. These suggested guidelines, features and products help create homes that make life easier, especially for those who use a wheelchair.

Throughout the home

  • Door thresholds should be one-half inch or less, and exterior and interior doors 36 inches wide.  
  • Elevators or stair lifts may be necessary for multiple-story homes. 
  • Hardwood, tile, composite materials and linoleum are easier to navigate when using wheelchairs or walkers. 
  • Natural and artificial lighting increases safety for all.
  • Electrical outlets and light switches should be located where a seated person can reach them.

In the kitchen

Universal design features in the kitchen include the overall design of the circulation pattern, cabinet design, countertop height and appliance selection.

  • A minimum 5-foot turning radius throughout the kitchen allows a person who uses a wheelchair the ability to do a 360-degree turnaround. Power wheelchairs and scooters may need additional space.
  • Side-hinged ovens are preferable to those hinged at the bottom, installed at a height that is easy to reach from a wheelchair.
  • Cooktop controls and ventilation control panel at the front and at waist height make them accessible by all.
  • Multiple countertop heights, such as 40, 34 and 30 inches, accommodate a diverse population. A 30-inch countertop with knee space underneath works well for someone who remains seated during meal preparation.
  • At least half of the storage space should be accessible from a seated position, including drawers and cabinet shelves.
  • Cooktops and sinks with knee space beneath make for user-friendly work areas. This space can be hidden by removable or retractable doors.
  • A dishwasher raised 16 inches off the floor eliminates the need to bend down low.
  • Side-by-side refrigerator/freezer provide easier access from a seated position.

In the bathroom

Accessible bathrooms meet needs for convenience, safety, privacy and independence.

  • Curbless showers with channel drains are a must-have feature.
  • Showers must be large enough to transfer a person and allow for an assistant when needed.
  • Shower chairs or benches can be mounted on the wall or used in portable form.
  • Handheld shower nozzles and an adjustable height vertical bar make showering easier.
  • Grab bars need to be accessible to toilets and showers.
  • Toilets seats should be 17 inches off the floor.

In the laundry room

  • Space to accommodate a 5-foot turning radius makes navigation easier.
  • Front-loading washers and dryers on pedestal drawers position these appliances to be accessible for a standing or a seated person.
  • A sink with knee space underneath allows all users to wash clothes by hand.


How do you talk about aging when you are meeting with a client about their plans to stay in their home during retirement?

In a recent interview with Stephanie Loucka, Director of the Ohio Department of Aging, she said, “People just don’t like talking about aging. People need to have a conversation with their clients to explain the value proposition of making an investment now in their homes to enable them to live in their own homes longer.”

When planning for retirement, a client’s home should be a topic of discussion. Does the client believe that he can stay in the current home for the next 10-20 years? Will the home need to be modified or remodeled in order for the client to maintain independence as they age? What would be the cost to remodel? How soon should action be taken? What are the risks of falling given the current condition of the home?

When discussing a home remodeling project, point out that according to research by Genworth in 2016, the average cost for independent living is $43,536 per year. Then compare that cost to the investment they can make to remodel their home to enable them to stay in their home longer.

To get a more accurate assessment of the true costs, factor in tangibles like the costs of selling a home and moving expenses.  Emphasize that there are also intangible downsides to moving, such as the hassle of clearing out clutter, selling furniture, and the disruption of social networks in the neighborhood.

Then compare that cost to the investment they can make to remodel their home to enable them to stay in their home longer.

Clients need to plan now for home renovations or a move into a different home. They need to make a wise decision and be proactive before realizing that the configuration of their house is limiting their ability to function in their home.

To receive a free chapter of the Universal Design Toolkit containing a list of the universal design features at the Universal Design Living Laboratory go to


About the author: Rosemarie Rossetti, Ph.D. consults with remodelers, builders, architects, designers, and consumers that want to create inspired and livable homes. She is an internationally known speaker, consultant, and author (  Her newest resource, the Universal Design Toolkit, is an illustrated 200-page e-book with online videos and webinars (


Universal Design Toolkit  by Rosemarie Rossetti, Ph.D.

The United States of Aging Survey” 2012, AARP.

Cost of Care Survey 2016” 2016, Genworth.

AARP Livable Communities Baby Boomer Facts and Figures

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