What’s Cooking in the Design Kitchen: A Recipe for Aging in Place

Whether a senior is living at home or in an assisted or independent living apartment, it’s important to ensure the ability to age in place, especially in important, high-traffic areas such as kitchens.

There are many design features that some architects are beginning to implement in kitchens that fall under “Universal Design,” which Manny Gonzalez, an architect for design firm KTGY Group, Inc., says is a way to create houses and environments that make it easier for people of all ages to live.

The 85+ population has increased significantly, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, Gonzalez points out. “The amount of people that are living longer, who are more healthy and fit and wanting to stay at their house, keeps increasing,” he says. “It’s important for us to keep designing toward that.”

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In fact, some cities are beginning to require certain aspects of Universal Design as part of their building codes, and similar to the “green” movement which saw increased environmentally-friendly requirements, these features could start to be added to overall building codes across the U.S, Gonzalez told SHN.

Designs can be as simple as putting controls and appliances at heights that are not only wheelchair accessible, but also easier for children or anyone whose movements are impaired.

  • Electrical outlets: Currently, most electrical outlets are installed sixteen inches—roughly a hammer’s height—from the ground, requiring people to bend over to plug or unplug cords.Instead, though, some outlets could be placed at the height of a light switch, says Gonzalez.

    “When you think about it, not having to bend over to unplug something is better. There are little things you can do that’s easier not just for someone who’s getting older, but just for convenience.”

  • Microwaves: Microwave ovens are often located in combination with the hood above the cooking range. But while this is a space-saving idea, says Gonzalez, “there’s no more dangerous place than right above your oven” because its high location is harder to reach for both older adults and small children. It’s a better idea to place them at cabinet height, he continues, for all-around easier access.
  • Cooking range controls: Many cooking ranges have the dials or buttons for stovetop and oven functions located at the top of the range, behind the burners, but this is inconvenient and possibly dangerous for people in wheelchairs. Controls should be located at the front or side, says Andrew Wong, vice president of strategic marketing at PulteGroup, the largest builder of active adult communities through the Del Webb brand.

    “We want to make sure that our residents don’t have to uncomfortably reach over a hot surface in order to manipulate the controls,” he says.

  • Cabinets: While considering wheelchair-accessibility when designing cabinet space is important, it’s not necessary to forego “upper” cabinets, says Gonzalez. “You want to have enough cabinets at a level so that somebody in a chair can do everything they would need to do in a kitchen, but that doesn’t mean you have to not provide upper cabinets,” he says. “It doesn’t make sense to penalize the rest of the population for the sake of accommodating someone in a chair.”Design as if you didn’t have the “uppers,” and provide enough spaces for a person in a chair to live comfortably and then also include more cabinets in places that make sense, he says.

    Additionally, it could be useful for upper cabinets to feature glass windows or lighting, or simply be open shelves without doors, he says. “To be able to look up into a cabinet and see what’s in there without having to open it could be beneficial to people who have trouble getting up higher,” says Gonzalez.

    MASCO Cabinetry, which manufactures KraftMaid Cabinetry, Merillat Cabinetry, QualityCabinets and DeNova Countertops, is an example of a company with aging-in-place kitchen designs. These include upper cabinets where the cabinet door hinges from the top and can be lifted up and out of the way. Lower cabinets can also include special features such as “roll trays” where storage can pull out into the room and be accessed on three sides, reducing the need for people to lean down or over.

    Other MASCO products are shallow drawers that make things closer to the countertop or have trays inside to segregate storage areas, such as those manufactured through its Merillat Cabinetry line.

  • Lighting: Good lighting becomes more important as people age and their eyesight fades. Getting the right wattage and the right location are two aspects to consider.

    “Put lights where workstations require them,” says Gonzalez. He suggests lighting fixtures over the sink in a kitchen, or on or by the cooktop so that areas where the most work is being done are well-lit.

    It’s smart to look at the floor plan when locating where lighting fixtures will go, as opposed to just ceiling plans, he says. “It amounts to, aesthetics are important, but practical aspects of the design are really important here,” he says.

  • Sinks: Some kitchens feature sinks with removable front pieces that enable wheelchairs to roll partially under the sink. This could also apply to bathroom sinks.
  • Dishwashers: Instead of dishwashers with doors that open downward, some kitchens are including drawer-style dishwashers that can greatly reduce the need to bend over. Bending range can be shorted by elevating dishwashers just a drawer’s height, says Sarah Reep, director of designer relations for MASCO Cabinetry, and this dishwasher placement modification is offered through the company’s KraftMaid “Passport Series.”
  • Islands: “There’s been a trend where islands have been very high, maybe 42 inches, but instead of going up in height, like a stack bar approach, we’re seeing islands and tables merging together to bring seating together,” says Reep. “This really embraces both ends of the spectrum—grandchildren who are coming to visit have easier access, and older people who struggle to get up on bar stools. It’s like sitting at your table, but within the workspace.” The “Passport Series” offers designs for this, as well.

Designing kitchens that stay functional for residents is a growing trend.

“I see a movement into interiors that accommodate people more than ever before,” says Reep, who obtained CAPS certification a couple years ago after nearly 20 years of design experience. “Aging in place is one of the things you’re going to be increasingly seeing.”

Written by Alyssa Gerace

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