Here Are More Tips on Aging in Place, and Why Design Pros Like Smart Lighting

A recent Barron’s Retirement article on how to tailor your home for aging in place drew a big response from readers. Many had questions about certain suggestions by architects and interior designers or about universal design ideas we didn’t mention. Some readers had good tips on how they’ve added accessibility features to their homes. And a few were critical of certain aspects of the advice. 

One reader found fault with our suggestion that people book an accessible hotel room to get a feel for how a universal design layout might work. “Please bear in mind that an able-bodied person who books an accessible hotel room denies availability of the room to those who truly need it,” the reader said.

This is a fair point. These types of hotel rooms can be in limited supply, so people interested in aging in place should ask to see what an accessible room looks like if there is one available when they check in. Or they can investigate open houses at independent living facilities and ask to look at units that incorporate universal design elements, says John Gleichman, certified specifications writer with Sheehan Nagle Hartray Architects in Chicago. 

Here are some more tips for preparing your home to age in place:

More simple ideas. Arrange furniture to give wide spaces, as people using crutches, a walker, or a wheelchair need more room to turn around and navigate, says Todd Wiltse, partner at WJW Architects, a firm focusing on senior living and memory care architecture. 

When choosing furniture, consider seating with varied heights, and buy some chairs with arms, says Heidi Wang, partner at WJW Architects. Chair arms offer support when needing to stand up from seated positions. 

Consider door openings. Traditional swinging doors require horizontal clearance to open and close and could be a hindrance for someone using a mobility device. One popular trend for interior doors is to replace swinging doors with sliding doors. If privacy isn’t an issue, a homeowner may be able to forgo doors.

Suggestions for stairways. Stairs often present a challenge for seniors, but there are ways to address the vertical space inside and outside a home. For the outside, a designer can use landscaping to make it appear as if ramps and mechanical lifts providing accessibility are integrated.  “You can design a beautiful walkway with planters on each side and it looks like it was meant to be part of the home,” she says.

Interior stairs are trickier. To limit stair climbing, rearrange or redesign first-floor rooms to incorporate as much living space on one level. For homeowners tackling a larger redesign project, Wang suggests including a bedroom and bathroom on the first floor, and if space allows, a laundry unit equipped with front-loading washers and dryers, which are easier to load and unload. 

One reader who redesigned his home for aging in place agreed with having these key living spaces on one floor, and offered a useful tip. “We installed a Murphy bed which allows for flexible use of the room. It not only serves as a place to recuperate after surgery, we (also) use it as a guest bedroom, exercise room, spa room for our hot tub and our wintering room for potted plants.”

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Homeowners with greater means may want to consider adding an elevator, a burgeoning design trend. These can be a big undertaking, and the most cost-efficient way to install one or allow for one in the future is as part of larger renovation. 

For homeowners thinking about aging in place, for instance, Gleichman at Sheehan Nagle says a renovation can include vertically stacked hall closets where each floor is framed with a knock-out floor panel system to accommodate a future elevator. “Until you need that inevitable lift, you have ample storage,” he says. Gleichman says depending on the number of floors served and how sophisticated the system, installing an elevator can cost between $25,000 and $100,000.

Another reader added an elevator to the home he bought four years ago at a lower cost and without disrupting the interior space. “This is large enough for a wheelchair but we are using it for a dumbwaiter in the short term since we do not need wheelchairs. The elevator is totally outside…[and] is only $20,000 with no house modifications.”

Why smart lighting? Some readers questioned the need for smart lighting and other smart devices. One reader wondered if smart devices won’t become too complex if mental functioning slows, and another suggested that multiple smart devices might be too taxing on WiFi and a pain to reconfigure after major WiFi software updates. 

Homeowners will need stronger WiFi to run multiple smart devices, and some devices may require help to set up or update when needed. However, universal design experts focused specifically on smart lighting because of its simplicity and greatest functionality.  

Lisa Cini, senior living designer and author of “Boom,” a book about aging and technology, says smart lighting doesn’t require reworking every light switch in the house. “You can do one remote light switch where you want it,” she says. 

Homeowners can try out smart lighting by buying a single smart plug, such as the WiFi-enabled iHome brand, which costs less than $30. These can be manually overridden if the user needs to physically turn on or off the light and unplugged if the homeowner decides it isn’t worth it.

Wang says she installed smart lighting in her home. By connecting lights to a smart speaker such as


‘s Alexa devices, she can turn on or off lights by voice, which is useful for those with severe arthritis or mobility issues. “If you have arthritis in your knees or feet, it can be a struggle to get into bed, and if you realize you’ve forgotten to turn off a light,” you can turn it off by voice, she says.

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