The Right Height for Your Household Items
My uncle, who is a licensed builder, is currently helping my almost 90-year-old grandmother design and build a brand-new home for her to move into. This statement in and of itself could be the subject of another article on another day, but today I want to focus on the fact that building a new home—or remodeling an old home—in order to make it accessible for aging adults requires more than your average trip to Ikea.
While designing the most stylish, eco-friendly home may be a priority for the average young family, adults over 65 who are thinking of building or remodeling their home will have different goals to ponder. For seniors, safety and comfort are two of the most important considerations as you design your new dwelling and determine the height of many items in your home.
Enter The Senior Safety Zone
As more and more seniors are choosing to age in place, or live at home, keeping certain things in their place becomes more crucial than ever before. When our aging loved ones choose this path, we worry about trip hazards, vision hazards, and other safety concerns that would make the home less safe than it ought to be.
Whether you or your someone you know has decided to build or remodel, or you’re looking to upgrade the accessibility of an elderly loved one's home, here is a quick and handy guide for which items should be which height for optimal safety:
- Bed – Your bed should be 18 to 12 inches tall, more on the 18 inches side. The reason for this is when you swing your legs out of bed for a midnight trip, they should not let your feet dangle too much or cause you to have to hoist yourself up from a squatting position.
- Chairs and Tables – Standard size is between 17 and 19 inches For the same reason as a bed, your feet should rest squarely on the floor and your legs should form as close to a 90 degree angle. Tables should be about 30 inches, so a grown adult doesn’t have to reach up or bend over to eat or use the table. Armrests on the chairs, if there are any, should fit comfortably under the chair.
- Kitchen Counters and Bars – 36 inches so they can be used standing. If you are going to turn them into a bar or dual level, the standard height goes up to 42 inches. Chairs for those should be between 24 and 30 inches depending on the dimensions of the counter/bar. I don’t recommend bars for people with poor balance or weak bones in case of a fall, but they are good to have handy for company.
- Coffee tables – should be the height of your chair – 18 to 20 inches. However, they can be a trip hazard, so be sure to stow them well out of your walkway; nestled between a couch and armchairs is best rather than in the middle of your living room!
- Bathroom Counters – an inch or two shorter than kitchen counters; vanities should be 30 inches to accommodate a chair
- Toilets – Same as chairs for the same reason – so you don’t have to hoist yourself up from a squat nor do your feet dangle!
- Bathtubs – For people prone to falls, these are the most problematic household items. You have to step over them to get in and hoist yourself out to get out. If you are building a home from scratch, we recommend bypassing baths and installing showers with no-slip floors and benches with grab bars. However, if you still want a tub in your house, it should have a no-slip floor in and around the tub and proper grab bars!
- Door Thresholds – Door thresholds should be no higher than ½ an inch from the ground and sloped so they do not trip you.
- High-Up Items – Such as shelves, cabinets, and light pendants should be out of your walk path or high enough so you won’t bang you head on them. Items like shelves, sconces, and pendants should be at least 36 inches above a desk or counter. If you are tall, consider moving these items higher than this standard.
- A Word on Microwaves – Moving hot food from a distance above your shoulders can cause an accident, and one you may have trouble preventing since your hands may be full. Consider moving the microwave or having a separate one at the same height as the counter so you do not have to reach above your head to get food out.
If you or your aging loved one have been thinking about shaking things up with a new home or living space design, but also must consider any mobility limitations, look for a licensed builder or contractor who is also a certified aging-in-place specialist, or CAPS. The CAPS designation is given by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) to professionals working in the fast-growing aging-in-place remodel industry. Those with the CAPS certification are required to complete courses which give them the knowledge and the skills to help you and your family make safe decisions about remodeling and building homes for improved "visitability" and safety to allow seniors to age in place for longer.
If your remodel is a small project, look for a CAPS-designated occupational therapist who can offer their consultation services by completing a home visit and accessibility assessment.