Making Your Home Accessible

Often overlooked during the home buying process, most homeowners don't view themselves two or three decades older when they set out to find a place to live.

Focus is more likely geared towards storage needs, bedroom size and possible paint colors than maneuvering stiff joints — or perhaps a wheelchair — up a set of stairs.

planning for the long term

When considering a place to live, or perhaps during a remodel, home designers recommend planning for accommodations needed for the next 10 to 20 years.

Planning in advance will minimize costly remodels and accessibility issues down the road. A rule of thumb, a home that's accommodating and comfortable for an older person is equally as accommodating and comfortable for a younger person.

Everyone can benefit from non-skid floors, wider doorways and open floor plans.

Features to look for in a home, or to add during remodels, include non-skid floor materials (avoid slick, shiny tiles), widened doorways and door and cabinet levers instead of cumbersome knobs.

If possible, having a guest room or extra space opens the possibility for one day having a live-in caregiver, if needed, or bringing mom or dad home to be cared for.

Other niceties include upgraded plumbing fixtures, which require minimal grasping strength, and lighting for outdoor walkways to prevent injury from falling.

Sooner or later a flight of steps, or even level changes inside the home, may become less than practical. Improved accessibility can be granted in a variety of ways, each with specific advantages.

Adding a ramp to an existing home is perhaps the more permanent method and an easy access for visitors both with and without special accessibility needs. Ramps are available ready-built or made with lumber or concrete.

While ready-built ramps are slightly more expensive than lumber and concrete, the aluminum-made structures are lower maintenance than wood and concrete and have some resale value should they no longer be needed. In addition, they require less demolition during removal. They generally cost between $5,000 and $10,000.

A rule of thumb for all ramps, says Connie Keever of All Lifts LLC in Medford, is that they require one foot in length for every inch in vertical drop, "so if you have to go six feet, you'll need a 72-foot ramp."

Most properties don't have a big enough front yard for a direct ramp to the front door, Keever notes, leaving homeowners to decide between switchbacks, in order to allow for a gradual enough slope, or utilizing a side or backdoor with more area to accommodate a ramp.

For front doors situated low to the ground, a slight ramp is all that's needed. With stairs, an existing platform cuts down on the amount of work needed to connect the ramp to the front door.

Front doors with steps that head straight inside, with no landing area, will require added effort to "build up" an area and connect a ready-made or wood-built ramp to the front door.

For do-it-yourselfers or homeowners hoping for a more natural look, lumber and concrete ramps are options, though concrete is discouraged due to the difficulty associated with removal of the ramp at a later time.

If considering a lumber, or wood-alternative structure, construction contractor Eric Bauer says each situation should be assessed individually based on homeowner needs and physical condition as well as the size of the entrance to the home and elevation off the ground. Also a paramedic, Bauer says he realizes the importance of accessibility more than most.

"In dealing with the elderly, I've seen both sides of needing to get access," he says.

"Everybody's situation is different based on the home, access elevation and considering the patient. Is the patient larger or whatnot? What size is their wheelchair? You want to design something to best help them in their particular situation."

Standards under the American Disabilities Act, Bauer notes, recommend ramps be at least three feet wide.

"You don't want the slope to be too steep, both for the person needing the ramp and whoever is helping them up."

Once complete, any type of ramp will require non-stick surfacing, available in rolls to be glued on or, for lumber-style ramps, sand can be added to the final varnish coat for traction.

For a site-built ramp, made of wood or 'faux wood' plan to spend anywhere between $400 and $1200, depending on site requirements, says Bauer.

An alternative for ramps, especially for a home with limited space, a vertical lift enables a wheel chair to roll right on and be lifted with the push of a button. The downside? A vertical lift will still require some custom installation by a licensed elevator mechanic and carries a price tag of between $15,000-$25,000.

Most important, consider looking at home accessibility before it's needed.

"It's really important as we get older to have good accessibility," Bauer says. "Especially to be able to continue doing the things we like to do without becoming dependent on others."


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