Downsizing your home for retirement? Now’s your chance to think long term. Recent statistics gathered by AARP show that a whopping 90% of retiring homeowners want to age in place—but whether they’re proactively making plans to do so is another story.
“So many people are not thinking long term about home features that might make it harder to age in place,” says Barbara Dopp, whose team ranks as one of the top ten in production out of over 4,000 agents in the Boise, Idaho area.
“Some clients think of ‘small’ when they think of downsizing, when they may just need to resize and reappropriate the square footage, or downsize into a space that has features to make them more comfortable in their everyday life.”
Finding an accessible home sounds like a lot of work, because no house is going to have everything you might want or need. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be overwhelming if you hire an agent experienced in helping retirees find homes that are already accessible or easily remodeled for improved mobility.
Plus, there are plenty of products specifically designed to improve any home’s functionality for the aging and infirm—that you can afford with the help of federal grants, loans or your existing home equity.
Let’s explore the current trends around aging in place and then we’ll get into our top picks for the most practical and functional home accessibility features. That way, aging in place becomes a real possibility, rather than a pipe dream.
How to think about your long-term needs when you downsize for retirement
A study conducted by the National Council on Aging found that 84% of retirees aged 60 or older report high levels of confidence that they will be able to stay in their homes without having to make any significant changes.
However, only 20% of home service professionals who cater to aging homeowners say that their clients reach out proactively, before health and mobility issues require immediate home improvements to increase accessibility and self-sufficiency.
Though too few are preparing in advance for the health problems that come with aging, the truth is millions of retirees will have physical limitations like hearing loss, vision issues, and reduced mobility.
So if you downsize into a home without thinking about your future mobility and accessibility needs, your plans to age in place may be cut short.
“Oftentimes, while we still have good health, we don’t think ahead to a day when we might be in a wheelchair, or might need a hip replacement, or a knee surgery,” explains Dopp. “If you’re not able to maneuver in the downsized house after your health fails, you’re going to have to move again. So it’s better to buy a property that’s going to work long term.”
The question is: How can you tell if the home you want to downsize into will work for your physical needs long term?
Unless you’ve got a working crystal ball, there’s no way to know what your needs will be for certain—however there are some basic home features that can help all seniors age in place longer.
For example, single-level homes with zero-step entrances make moving about easier whether you’re getting around in a wheelchair, with a walker or cane, or simply unsure of your footing.
It’s also a wise idea to look for properties with halls and doorways wide enough to meet government accessibility regulations.
“I’ll preview homes for clients who have very specific accessibility needs, because they don’t want to run around to 8 to 10 homes that won’t work,” says Dopp. “So you have to be able to tell whether a home could already work for them, or if it could work with a few changes, like removing a non-weight-bearing wall, or remodeling the bathroom.”
Without further ado, let’s review the types of aging-in-place features that can save you from another move down the line.
1. Stairlifts and residential elevators
If it’s your dream to restore a two-story historic home in your retirement years, don’t let accessibility issues deter you. While stairs aren’t ideal, they’re by no means a deal breaker—thanks to stairlifts and residential elevators.
A stairlift is essentially a chair attached to a track that’s mounted along the staircase—while leaving plenty of room to use the stairs as normal. You can get one for an average cost of $3,000 to $5,000 installed—the final price tag is primarily determined by the type and brand of stairlift you choose.
The alternative for making two-story homes accessible is the residential elevator.
An elevator requires more space and time to install than a chairlift, and comes with a heftier price tag, too. It costs an average of $40,000 to install an elevator in a two-story house, and can reach well over $50,000 depending on the brand, difficulty of the install, and adding additional floors.
The plus side of an elevator over a chairlift is that it has the potential to increase your home’s value. Unlike a chairlift (which is primarily practical for moving a single, infirm person), many residential elevators are capable of carrying more than one person, and are useful for lugging heavy loads (like luggage and Costco hauls) upstairs.
Plus, residential elevators are a rising trend because they appeal to a wider buyer pool, including families with kids. This means an elevator has a better chance of helping your house sell than a stairlift that appeals to the limited retiree crowd.
2. Easy-install indoor wheelchair ramps
Stairlifts and elevators aren’t practical if you’ve only got a short flight of stairs to overcome—for those you’ll need a wheelchair ramp.
According to a recent study by the National Technology for Biotechnology Information, almost half of nondisabled elderly report difficulty navigating stairs. That’s why ramps aren’t just for the wheelchair-bound, they’re a practical way to reduce accessibility obstacles for retirees using walkers, canes, or without any assistance at all.
Ramps come in all shapes and sizes, and with or without railings depending on your personal needs. There are even threshold ramps to eliminate the minor trip hazard posed by your door sills. The cost varies by type, costing as little as $50 for a threshold ramp into the thousands for a full-sized, permanently-installed wheelchair ramp.
However, if you’re living with a lot of little stairs, like split-level houses or homes with sunken living rooms, it’s wiser to downsize into a house without stairs than installing a dozen or more ramps into your existing home.
3. Bathroom grab bars and handrails
Damp and steamy tubs, showers, tiles, and flooring make bathrooms the most dangerous place in the home for all ages. The risks only increase with age as retirees grapple with balance issues.
That’s why it’s smart to install grab bars well before you think you’ll need them—both in your tub and shower area and by the toilet.
Some seniors put off installing grab bars because they’re picturing those bulky, unattractive pipe-sized safety rails you find in public restrooms. Luckily, many of the top bathroom fixture manufacturers offer designer grab bars that’ll blend in with any decor style.
Just make sure that you get yours properly installed by a professional—which will run you around $85 to $400 depending on how much reinforcement is needed for a safe installation.
Without proper installation, your grab bar might just fall off the wall with you if you put your full body weight on it when you slip.
4. Walk-in tubs and showers
Grab bars aren’t the only way to increase safety in the bathroom—
walk-in tubs and showers remove the balance hazard of stepping over the side of a tall tub.
Most walk-in tubs are made with a built-in seat which provides an extra measure of fall prevention. Basic models are simple soaking tubs, while deluxe models offer features including air baths, whirlpools, and massage jets.
The average cost to install a walk-in tub runs between $5,000 to $7,000, but can be as low as $3,200 for soaking tubs. While walk-in tubs offer independence for many seniors, they tend to appeal only to the elderly age bracket.
At an average cost of $3,491 installed, a walk-in shower is the less expensive option, too.
5. Automatic door openers and easy-open handles
The loss of physical strength—and specifically grip strength—are declining health eventualities that most seniors need to face. Updating your doors for safety and easier access can lessen the impact of this fact on your everyday life.
Installing an automatic garage door opener is a start, but that’s not the only door where you can install an auto opener. Almost any residential door can be retrofitted with a power door opener—an especially handy feature on heavy doors, or for retirees using walkers and wheelchairs.
If gripping your existing doorknobs is your main accessibility issue, you can skip the auto opener and simply increase your accessibility with lever handles that are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Just like bathroom grab bars, ADA-compliant lever door handles are available in a variety of styles to work with any design style. If you DIY the installation, you’ll only pay for the handles themselves, which can cost as little as $20 apiece depending on brand and style. Having them professionally installed by a locksmith can run about $127 per door.
6. Fall-protection flooring
Fall-related injuries and deaths are on the rise, so retirees facing vision and mobility issues need to take every precaution—which may just include installing fall-protection flooring.
This specialty flooring is designed to absorb impact, which reduces your chances of suffering things like hip injuries or fall-related deaths. The cost of this flooring varies by manufacturer, quality, shock absorbency, and installation fees.
Some manufacturers, like SmartCells, do offer their cushioning technology in a budget-friendly bedside mat for less than $300. Or you can get an estimate for a build-your-own-mat to add fall-protection flooring to a larger space.
7. Safety Lighting
One way to keep from falling is making sure you can see where you’re going—which means updating your home’s lighting system.
Year ago exterior motion sensor lighting was the high tech gadget in lighting, but now there are plenty of ways to improve the safety and ease-of-use of your interior lights, too.
Putting in easy-on rocker light switches is just the beginning. Make nighttime walks safer by installing outlet covers with LED night lights. And you can forget fumbling in the dark for your bedside lamp switch when you replace them with touch-activated lamps.
Or better yet, control the lighting throughout your house with an app, by installing budget-friendly smart light switches and outlets, which start as low as $35 to $40 per outlet or switch.
You can even control small appliances with the smart outlets, such as turning a bedside fan on or off at night without getting up.
8. Smart thermostats and appliances
If you’re tech-savvy enough to handle app-controlled lighting, step your home’s smart-quotient up a notch by installing a smart thermostat and appliances.
Smart thermostats not only allow you to control your home’s temperature from the comfort of your couch, you can even lower the temperature while you’re out and about with most basic models. Fancier smart thermostats can even detect whether you’re home or not, and adjust the temperature accordingly without any help from you.
Smart appliances aren’t just cool high-tech toys for the kitchen, they can improve your home’s accessibility and safety, too.
Smart refrigerators let you track your grocery needs right on their door-installed touch screens, so you never have to worry about forgetting your shopping list at home.
Some even let you view your fridge’s contents via a camera so you can check if you’re out of milk even if it’s not on the list. Or you can pull up a recipe, and your smart fridge can tell you instantly whether or not you have all of the ingredients.
Getting a smart fridge will cost you at least a couple grand, with some running up to $5,000. However, as technology advances, less-expensive models are coming out that cost closer to $2,200.
Smart ranges and ovens are perhaps even more important for aging retirees. Instead of worrying whether or not you remembered to turn off the stove, you can check your app and make sure. You can even pre-heat the oven remotely.
Smart ranges don’t come cheap. The most basic models start around $1,600 up to over $4,000 for the fanciest models.
If you want the safety net that a smart range offers, but you can’t afford a whole new stove, you’re in luck—the Shark Tank-featured tech company Inirv is developing technology that’ll lets you replace your stove’s existing knobs with smart ones. These knobs can be controlled by an app and can be programmed to send alerts if you’ve accidentally left the oven or burners on.
9. Video doorbells and smart locks
“Don’t open the door to strangers,” police departments say. That’s great advice, but what do you do if you can’t see who’s knocking. Even if you have a peephole, it can be hard to tell who’s there, especially as your eyesight (and height!) declines with age.
Thanks to Ring’s video doorbells, you can check who’s at the door while still lounging in your recliner via your smartphone or tablet. The devices themselves cost between $100 to $200 and provide a live feed. For an extra layer of security, you can pay a minimal monthly subscription fee to have videos recorded and archived.
Speaking of opening the door, smart locks can help make your home more accessible to you while keeping you safe, too.
With a touch of a button on your smartphone, you can unlock your door remotely, so you don’t need to fumble with keys if your hands are full. Other smart locks have voice activation, codes to punch in on keypads, or even biometric locks with fingerprint scanners.
However, all of this technology is only as effective as its user.
“With technology, people can age in place much longer—if they use it. Otherwise it’s just a waste of money,” advises Dopp. “A good real estate professional will have connections that can not only install these features, but instruct clients on how to use the technology.”
10. Personal emergency response system (PERS)
“Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” The famous line from those retro Life Alert commercials may have become a humorous punchline, but there’s no denying that the personal emergency response system (PERS) it advertised saved thousands of seniors living alone.
Life alert is still a brand-leader, but it’s no longer the only name in the game. Newer brands offer similar PERS devices with a variety of features including wellness checks, medication reminders, and spouse monitors.
The devices themselves are relatively inexpensive, costing between $25 to $100—however most require a monthly subscription fee to actually connect to someone who can answer your call for help. These subscription charges range between $20 to $50 per month, however some companies offer a reduced rate when you pay for a 6 or 12-month subscription in advance.
But as Dopp mentioned, technology like PERS can only help those seniors who use it. And while the Life Alert pendants are easy-to-use lifesavers for many, others found them cumbersome or forgot to wear them. So if you’re going to invest in a PERS, make sure you use it.
Planning for accessibility when you downsize lets you age in place longer
Don’t let all the accessibility issues that arise when you’re aging put you off the idea of downsizing in your retirement.
Downsizing opens up a wide world of possibilities for improving your retirement lifestyle. You can relocate to a warmer state. Buy a place with dedicated space for your hobby shop or craft room. Or even move into a cozy home with a large enough backyard for that garden you always wanted to grow.
“Some people wait too long to downsize and they live in an inconvenient situation for a long time because it’s uncomfortable to move,” says Dopp. And unfortunately, they often forget to find a house equipped for the lifestyle they’ll be able to live as age takes its inevitable toll on health and mobility.
Dopp adds: “The right agent can help in more ways than just selling the house—if they find one who really listens to what’s important to them in their current home, and what they want in the new home.”
The right agent and the right accessibility features help you live the last years of your life comfortably at home. And the best part is, many of these accessibility features are considered Durable Medical Equipment (DME) as long as they are prescribed by your physician. So many of these accessibility features may be partially or fully paid for by your Medicare coverage.
While it may take a lot of work and careful planning to find the right house that’ll allow you to age in place, the end result will be worth it.