Organizing for aging in place

Unclutterer reader Liz recently wrote to us describing her biggest organizing challenges:

My organizing or decluttering issue is the garden — I need to make the gardens a bit easier to manage as I get older. Some of it will be resolved by switching to services to do the work. In other places, it will be to simplify what I do.

For my home, it is also about decluttering, organizing and getting ready for “aging in place.” I want my home to be easier to handle if I get a medical problem. For example, if I am going to update my kitchen or bathroom, am I making the right changes for an elderly person?

Of course, in some cases, this advanced-age thinking does make it easier to get rid of things.

Liz, it sounds like you’ve already got a good plan in place for the garden. But I do have the following organizing-related suggestions regarding aging in place. Many of these ideas could benefit a lot of people, not just the elderly, but they become increasingly important as someone gets older.

Unclutter first

From your comments, Liz, I think you are well aware of this. But it bears repeating because this step so often gets ignored. I recently read something about aging-in-place solutions that jumped right to installing closet organizers. Yes, that can be important — but the first step is uncluttering what’s in those closets. Once that’s done, you’re ready to consider those closet organizers.

Look for accessible storage options

To make things easy to reach, you’ll want storage that’s not too high and not too close to the floor. If you’re able to remodel your kitchen, the AARP suggests that you:

  • Hang your upper cabinets 12 to 15 inches above the countertop instead of the normal 18 inches
  • Place your lower cabinets six inches above the floor.

You could also install pull-down shelving into existing upper cabinets. For lower cabinets, adding rollout shelves (or replacing the cabinets with drawers) can make things much more accessible. Anne-Marie Brunet on Next Avenue provides numerous examples of how lower cabinets can be replaced or redesigned.

When it comes to the clothes closets, storage solutions that get the shoes off the floor are generally a good idea since bending becomes harder with age. Pull-down closet rods can make clothes easier to reach in closets where the rods are fairly high.

And then there’s the bathroom. I never thought about adding a shower niche at shower-seat level until I saw that feature in one design.

Some of the fanciest products I’ve seen are the Closet Carousel and the various offerings from StorageMotion: AutoPantry, ShoeSelect, etc. Most people will be satisfied with far simpler solutions, but it’s still interesting to see the innovative storage products that are available to keep things within easy reach.

Improve the closet lighting

The Livable Design National Demonstration Home includes good lighting in both bedroom closets. In the master bedroom walk-in closet, a solar tube is used to add lighting. In the second bedroom, the website notes: “Typically, standard linear closets do not include lighting. This bedroom closet has LED lighting on a switch so it’s easier to pick an outfit in the morning.”

Consult an expert

If you’re making a significant investment in remodeling your home, you may want to work with someone who has special expertise in universal design and/or aging in place. For example, the National Association of the Remodeling Industry has a Universal Design Certified Professional Program.

14 Comments for “Organizing for aging in place”

  1. posted by Elizabeth Linn on

    You talked about the inside, but since there’s not much of a gardener emphasis here, you didn’t talk that much about the outside! LOL.

    Move from a GARDEN to a LANDSCAPE DESIGN. This means drastically reducing the number of different varieties of plants and increasing the impact of what remains. A gardener’s garden is usually about the delight of the individual specimen. A landscape, on the other hand, is about 1) impact and 2) maintenance. There are ugly commercial landscapes everywhere, of course, but it’s quite possible to make a glorious, lush domestic one.

    1) Create LARGE statements. Don’t do intense mixed borders but instead sweeps of plantings of a single type or a few mixed types.

    2) Choose non-fussy plants. If it’s work, cut it out. Choose shrubs that require only minimal pruning, too. For example, Moon yews have a more upright form than Hicks yews and require almost no pruning to make a very satisfying and formal, if modern, hedge.

    3) Keep the number of annuals down. Don’t have huge zones of annuals you have to constantly replant. Instead, concentrate your punches of color. They’re often the most impactful in containers.

    4) Mulch. Pay someone to mulch your beds to keep down weeds. 🙂

    5) Get people to divide your perennials in return for some of them!

    6) Pay attention to accessibility in the garden. Stepping stones in deep borders. Retaining walls and stairs for slopes, if needed.

    7) Get rid of really messy trees and plants. If they were misplanted, don’t keep “paying” more for them with your time. Get rid of them now.

    Hope this helps!

  2. posted by Pat Reble on

    An unexpected health breakdown has made me face these issues earlier than I expected to. The gardening tips are great. I’d add – plant in containers as much as possible. I have a range of fruit trees in tubs and it makes caring for them a breeze as I can keep them small and manageable and water them with a drip system. I still have the pleasure of my lemons and limes etc without the hard work. It’s amazing what will grow in a pot. Buy the fiberglass ones to keep the weight down and make sure you feed them well and they repay you abundantly.

    The other thing I’ve learned is to work smarter. I lost all my strength, but have compensated by acquiring various aids – wheeled carts and barrows for moving things; gadgets for opening things (the best sort of unitaker!); and adapting my choices so I don’t make life hard for myself – sensible shoes instead of those gorgeous but impractical ones I used to adore, sob. When my friends express amazement at how well I’m coping, I always say, “I’m old but I’m cunning!”

    Technology also helps. My medications are causing eyesight issues, but I can use phones, computers and reading devices where I can increase print size, and there are all sorts of ways
    of accessing audio versions of things as well. I’m using the dictation options more. Check out your library for a lot of these things and keep abreast of the technology that makes aging easier , not harder.

  3. posted by Pat Reble on

    Another tip that relates to the uncluttering theme is to stop bulk buying. Bigger items are harder to manage and take up more space, usually resulting in storing them in less convenient locations. You need less as you get older anyway! 🙂

  4. posted by PMcD on

    By far the best book I’ve seen for gardening advice is Gardening for a Lifetime: How to Garden Wiser as You Grow Older by Sydney Eddison (I’m giving it as gifts to several friends and relations as they hit their late 50s), which has much of the same advice given be the previous commenter.

    Everyone should have grab bars in the tub or shower. And get a taller toilet or commode. We had to replace a toilet a few years back, and my FIL lived nearby in assisted living. We opted to get something that would be easier for him, and it’s been great for us, too. And don’t forget the hardware. As we age, many of us develop arthritis, and gripping faucet handles can be difficult (not to mention door knobs). Lever handles are much easier to use. Test anything with a closed fist: if it can be manipulated with a closed fist, someone with severe arthritis of the hands will be able to use it.

    In the kitchen, be sure to get OXO Good Grips utensils. And getting things out of drawers may be much easier than using lower cabinets. You can retrofit lower cabinets with pull-out drawers to make things easier.

  5. posted by Brooke on

    This is less about clutter than home changes, but I think one of the smartest things anyone can do is assume that, at some point in the future, someone in your house may spend time in a wheelchair. It could be a temporary issue (after extended stays in the hospital, my mother ends up so deconditioned that she needs a wheelchair for a few days after she gets home) or a permanent situation (my neighbor’s adult son had ALS and, since their house was relatively wheelchair accessible), it meant that he could visit at holidays.

    The two biggest issues I’ve encountered in my home are raised flooring dividers and doorways. Where the flooring changes from tile to wood, there’s a raised divider. You wouldn’t notice it normally, but for a wheelchair user or someone with mobility issues, it can be a major problem. The second problem is doors. My mom is in a small wheelchair but regular doors aren’t very accommodating of even a narrow wheelchair (and don’t even think about getting a stretcher in).

    Oh, and steps into the house. Even if you think you were smart by getting a one story home, those three steps it takes to get into the house can be an almost impossible hurdle. They can also be dangerous. My dad fell down the stairs into the garage more than once (neurodegenerative movement disorder) and managed to fracture a limbar vertebra, which was very painful.

    If I were shopping for or building a house, I would approach everything in terms of whether it could be used by someone in a wheelchair. It can happen to anyone at any age. I know a girl who fractured a cervical vertebra shortly after her high school graduation and was just ridiculously lucky that it somehow didn’t paralyze her. Odds are that if you do end up unexpectedly using a wheelchair, you aren’t going to have the time or money to suddenly make the renovations that would allow you to come home.

    I also can’t overstate how important it is to declutter before you get older. The older and sicker my mother gets, the harder it is to manage what she does have and to convince her to get rid of what she doesn’t need. At the very least, having a ton of clothes she can’t wear makes it harder for her to be independent when it comes to getting dressed.

    The other parts of the article are great. I’m in the process of cleaning out my mom’s closet when she’s in a rehab facility and I may use some of the suggestions. Also, thanks for the link to the universal design certification. I think that we’re probably going to have to make me major changes eventually, so this will be a helpful jump off point for finding someone.

  6. posted by Bette on

    Both sets of elderly parents lived in our home for a period of time. This was truly eye-opening in terms of hurdles they faced in daily living. The first and most important thing you should do is ensure your bath, shower, and toilet all have grab bars (professionally installed). To me, this is #1, esp after my mother in law fell to the bathroom floor after relying on a towel bar to hold her up. She broke her shoulder when the towel bar came out of the wall — I was upset I hadn’t thought abt this before it happened. My carpenter told me it happens all the time.

  7. posted by Gail on

    Luv the pull down cabinet insert.
    Really paring down is what I’m doing. How many people eat at my house NOW, not 10 years ago. Are the types of ?s I’m asking myself. Then adjusting supplies based on answer.
    Eyesight changes so I’m adding a little more constrast between wall color, bed spread/curtain, a rugs so I can see them better at dusk & dawn.

  8. posted by Laurie Williamso on

    These ideas are good for anybody with tall storage and average height.

  9. posted by liz on

    Thanks for responding to my comment concerning aging in place.

    I had the pleasure of having my Mom live with me during her last years and it did make me aware of what I will face in the coming years. I am currently at the age where I can do most activities, but my decluttering, remodeling and replacement tasks are more focused.

    One of my first tasks was to sit in each room of my house and evaluate everything with respect to clutter, design, accessibility and priority for change. I’ll look for that expert for an evaluation before I do any major interior change.

    One issue is lighting – while replacing the roof, a solar tube was installed for a dark hallway. It’s wonderful, so I’ll add another one in the future. And there is a company that makes an outlet cover with a built in night light (SnapPower). And while I have some lamps on timers, it’s not easy to get to the device to change the timing, so I am looking for alternatives there.

    Another issue is the interior doorways and doors – many are too narrow and the doors get in the way. I have removed one door and will probably take down a few more. They are always open and I have still other doors to close if necessary. For example, removing the door to my laundry room gave me space for a bench and storage to serve as a mudroom as a spot to sit while folding clothes and waiting for the last few minutes of a wash cycle.

    Finally, as we age, our sense of smell also decreases, so I look for kitchen appliances that shut off automatically – the electric tea kettle, a coffee maker with a carafe, a countertop convection oven. And I’m adding more smoke alarms around the house.

    I hope you have more ideas for aging in place and encourage anyone who is remodeling to consider changes to make life easier in the very long run!

  10. posted by Jeremey on

    Oh my god, my wife would love those pull down shelves. She can never reach the top of the cabinet and always yells at me when I put stuff she needs up there.

  11. posted by skiptheBS on

    Rent a wheelchair for a day and use it all day. Ditch the shag carpet and make sure you can navigate the bathroom. See if you can swing on your arms from wheelie into various home furnishings and then get back out of them. Have a tight organizational system in place and use it: if your vision goes, it will be essential.
    I disagree on bulk buying. If/when driving becomes unsafe, having bulk purchases on hand will spare you taxi/bus/gas money and having to beg trips to the store.
    Rethink cast iron and multiple kitchen tools. With arthritis, lighter and simpler are better.
    Google “permaculture”. Adjust to suit your needs.
    Learn to write with both hands. Now, before you need the skill. Gel pens help.
    Find a friend who will swap skills in your old age. You may not be able to wash your own hair/she can’t squat to trim flower beds.
    Good post-thanks!

  12. posted by Shelley on

    Looks to me as though a tag for ‘aging’ could be quite useful on this blog, given the aging of the population and the common problem of clearing out deceased parents’ homes. But also because of the wealth of really useful information for those of us entering this chapter of our lives.

  13. posted by Pat Collins on

    I think more articles pertaining to aging in place are needed. My in-laws are in their early 80’s and one is now in a nursing home because he cannot navigate in his home and Mom is barely making it there with a nurse coming in daily to get her cleaned and dressed for the day. They have steps and it makes daily living there hard.
    So my husband and I have a raised ranch with three steps outside and then seven more from the foyer to the living room. We both have very bad back and arthritis issues and we are facing the what do we do with he house issue? We don’t want to move, we built the house ourselves in our early 20’s, but I cannot see any way to live out our lives here. We both hate doing laundry because it is in the basement (14 steps each way), carrying laundry to boot. We cannot find a suitable place to put them upstairs. We buy bottled water because will water tastes bad with clay in it. Grocery day is terrible to carry all that upstairs. I love baths, it helps to soothe my fibromyalgia and lupus, but I cannot get back up so I just have to shower. And I would love my lower cabinets to be drawers!! Any hints, would be great!

  14. posted by Dianne in the desert on

    Hubby and I have been working on this process bit by bit. At this point, we have done a great deal of de-cluttering. We inherited my parents’ retirement home, so things are already in good shape for our retirement years.

    What we are finding is that the “mechanical” aspects are quite expensive, so we are devising other ways to create accessibility. It is actually fun!

    Reaching for things hanging in the closet was made easier by moving the bar lower, but we also removed one third of the bar and put a double stack of cubbies for things that did not have to hang if folded properly. Long items that have to hang are in the space between the cubbies and we have shoe cubbies below that.

    We are taking small steps to be sure that the changes are actually going to work before they are made permanent.

    Our next project is improving access to the master bathroom. It is a small room, but there is no room to expand; only modify access. This could get interesting…

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