A Guide to Designing a Senior-Friendly Kitchen

A Guide to Designing a Senior-Friendly Kitchen
  • Opening Intro -

    Odds are, your home is not built around the principles of universal design: flexible, simple, and easy for all to navigate.

    You may not have noticed it a few years ago.

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But that was before the grey hairs took over and the arthritis started to become a factor. Now, juggling a bag of groceries while opening the front door is a challenge. And it’s a risk.

Some things are easy to change. Adding a shower grab bar is as easy as a quick trip to the hardware store. Putting a small table by your door solves your juggling woes. But, some areas are more difficult, and your kitchen is the queen of them all.

American kitchens tend to be vertical. There are drawers down near your feet and cabinets inaccessible to even the tallest among us. Hot oven doors pose a dangerous trap if you lose your balance, not to mention sharp corners on your island counter.

Here are some ways you can raise the universal design factor in your kitchen. First, we’ll start with the easy stuff, and then move toward the more complex projects.

Accessibility 

Keep everything within reach. Sounds obvious and easy enough, right? But many of us persist in keeping our cereal bowls in high places, and the milk on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. Take a survey of your kitchen. What are the items you use most? Put those in easy reach – not too high, not too low, and not too deep. If you make these changes and don’t like how cluttered everything looks, that’s ok. That will help you figure out what changes you may want to make to your counter and cabinet layout.

Appliances 

Changing out your appliances may seem like a daunting proposition. They tend to require some investment. Besides, your current appliances work just fine, right? Maybe not. The classic refrigerator is vertically built too: freezer on top, produce drawer on the way bottom What if your refrigerator allowed easy horizontal access, with the freezer door on the left, and the fridge on the right? What if the drawers slid out, so that you could keep most everything below eye level but above the waist?

These are now possible and worth your time in researching. Why suffer a potential back injury by keeping your old fridge, when you could have a beautiful new one that preserves your back (and hips, and neck, and so forth)? And don’t stop with the fridge. Today’s stoves, ovens, and dishwashers are built to better accommodate our ease of use too.

Actually Getting Around 

So, you have moved around your kitchen items and determined to invest in a new fridge and oven. Now place your hand on your heart and ask yourself: is your kitchen physically laid out in a way that allows you to move about with ease and comfort? Here are some specific questions:

  • Does your kitchen allow you to place the things that you use most in the places that are most accessible? Where are the deficits?
  • Is there plenty of counter space on each side of the fridge? It is not fun to juggle many items with your hands or to open and close the fridge when collecting ingredients.
  • Is there a sink and garbage disposal near the fridge, so that you can directly move produce and other items into a waiting sink and not take multiple trips?
  • Is your counter height low enough so that you can be seated if you desire? The kitchen is usually a standing place, but there is no reason that it cannot accommodate sitting. Sitting while cooking is a nice luxury – great for folks who are in wheelchairs and people who are tired of standing over a long-simmering sauce. Remember: the average counter is 36" high. Chair height is 24" to 30" high. Also, are your kitchen pathways roomy enough for a rolling chair? Accessible pathways should be at least 48" side, and 60" is recommended if you have the space.
  • Is there legroom under counters so that you can sit comfortably? Not every counter needs to have cabinets or drawers underneath. Some empty space can provide excellent comfort for those seated.
  • Are your cabinets and drawers located where you need them most? Make sure you have enough space for your most frequently used utensils, plates, ingredients, and so forth.
  • Are there easily accessible outlets for small appliances? Are there pull or lift platforms to store and retrieve blenders, mixers, toasters, and coffee makers?
  • When you pull something hot out of the oven, is there a surface to put it down right away so you do not have to hold it for too long?

Take some time to explore your kitchen. Most of us have gotten so used to the problems that we don’t notice when something is not accessible. But repeated stress motions take their toll on our bodies. If you have not already, I suggest taking a good hour or two and jotting down the opportunities you see. Some of them you can do yourself, like swapping out cabinets or drawers for better placement. Other things need a hired professional – pick up the phone and get several contractors to offer you a quote.

Your universal design kitchen is likely closer to your reach than you imagine – closer yet than even that cereal bowl you keep above your refrigerator.

Shayne Fitz-Coy is the Co-CEO and President of Alert-1, an aging-in-place technology company headquartered in Williamsport, Pennsylvania with offices nationwide. Shayne has a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Harvard College and a Masters in Business Administration from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Shayne hails from Maryland, and now calls the Bay Area home.

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