Home Design RI-MA: Aging in Place

In this column we will discuss the retrofitting of existing homes in Rhode Island and Massachusetts with some modifications and upgrades having to do with maintaining mobility as a person gets older. Sensitive design can help compensate for chronic health problems or being confined to a wheelchair.

Aging in place means, living independently in a place of choice, well into our golden years. This idea appeals to most of us on some level. We imagine ourselves living in the comfort of familiar surroundings, maintaining our independence and privacy, perhaps the same home we lived in for all or most of our lives. As we age, physical and mental limitations are to be expected and should be planned for. For an elderly or handicapped person these limitations may create huge barriers to everyday tasks. It’s difficult at a young age to imagine not being able to walk up a flight of stairs, or the inability to perform a simple task like turning a doorknob. As our population ages and people continue to live longer, the barriers associated with aging in place will begin to affect more and more people. Many will have to choose between living in their own homes, moving in with a family member or going to an assisted living facility. Here are some of our thoughts:


  • Secure rugs at corners and edges or remove all together to reduce potential trips and falls. Repair or replace worn carpets.
  • When choosing new carpeting it is best to use short pile especially for people who use walkers or are in a wheelchair.
  • Cover potentially slippery floors with non-slip runners. When choosing ceramic or hardwood flooring avoid materials with a high gloss finish; use non-glare material which are naturally slip resistant.
  • Try to eliminate or minimize thresholds and lips between rooms and the entry door. When possible, porch floors and deck surfaces should be level with interior finished floors, eliminating the need for a step upon entering.


  • Add handrails to all stairways whether inside or out. Place rails on both sides if possible. Make sure the rail can easily be grasped by someone with a small hand.  Consider additional rails that are lower than usual to accommodate children. Rails should be continuous and extend to and beyond both the first and last step. A rail should be returned into itself or into a newel post.
  • On the step surface itself, use non slip rubber treads which help prevent slips and falls. Also the rise of each step and the depth of each tread should be consistent.
  • Adding a roof over an exterior stairway will provide some protection from rain and snow, both of which can be hazardous to someone with compromised mobility.
  • Additional lighting should be added in dark places. If necessary, apply a bright color to the stair edge to enhance visibility.
  • On new stairways the rise of each step can be reduced thus requiring less leg lift for each step. A flat area-landing can be provided (particularly on a long stairway), giving its owner a place to rest between flights.


  • Ramps can be built of wood, cement or steel (some manufacturers sell prefabricated steel ramps which can be set up or taken down as needed). Again rails should be continuous and applied to both sides if possible. They should be sturdy enough to support the entire weight of a person in the event of a slip or fall. This can be done by providing additional brackets. Always maintain a minimum width of thirty six inches between rails for wheelchairs.
  • For best results the maximum slope of a ramp should be no more than one inch vertical for every twelve inches horizontal.
  • Whenever a ramp changes direction, or in front of an entry door, provide a landing. Inside dimensions of landings should be five feet by five feet minimum to allow maneuverability for someone in a wheelchair.

Home Design Energy GeeksGood Idea: When designing a new home, why not provide for the future. Many handicap-accessible features can be added during construction at minimal cost. Items such as wider doors, providing shelves and rods low in closets and using lever handles (which are easier to operate) rather than round door knobs are a few examples.

Serving Rhode Island and Massachusetts