Canadians who take it for granted that their homes are designed to maintain individual independence have a big surprise ahead. As they age and simple daily tasks become more challenging, many homeowners will find the design of their home adds to their frustration and aggravates any loss of strength or mobility.

If you are temporarily or permanently unable to do the things you do now without thinking, like climbing stairs or changing light bulbs, you quickly discover how your home can limit your ability to do these and other "little" things that define our independence as adults.

These are just a few of the daily tasks that we take for granted:.

  • Can you climb the steps to the front door even when the steps are slippery?
  • Can you easily turn the front door knob?
  • Can you reach the shelves in the kitchen?
  • Can you get to the bathroom in time?
  • Can you conveniently reach the electrical outlets?

The irony is that traditional Canadian residential design makes it easy for us to fail at everyday tasks at any age, but particularly when you are very young or elderly. Building standards, accepted home design and traditional residential hardware perpetuate inefficiencies, inconvenience and approaches that are not the best or easy way to do anything, for anyone, at any age.

Hardware. Have you ever come home with your arms full of shopping and nearly broken your wrist trying to turn the door knob without dropping anything? Or, have you tried to turn a door knob when your hands are wet or dirty? Wrist strength decreases as we age, but young children and those with small hands also have trouble with door knobs. Wouldn't a lever work better than a door knob? Yet door knobs are still standard issue with many Canadian home builders.

Entry access. Why do most Canadian houses and buildings have a few steps leading to the porch or front door? A ramp or graded entrance should not be reserved for those needing wheelchair access. This type of entrance can also be easier to navigate when you are carrying packages, coming in at night or in snowy weather, struggling with a child's stroller or when you have vision, weight or breathing problems.

Plug-in convenience. Electrical outlets bring us to our knees too often. These essential connectors always seem to be in the most awkward corner of a room. A local construction expert says that the height of these outlets was set at the length of a hammer-handle to aid installation. Why not have outlets up where we need them — at table height, ironing board height, worktable height?

These and other ease-of-access features are aspects of Barrier-Free or Universal Design, which ensures that everyone, despite age or physical abilities, can freely enter and use a room or a building. If you are going to build a new house, renovate your current home or modernize your cottage, or if your landlord is going to renovate your apartment building, break out of the design-rut and consider barrier-free design to make life simpler and safer for everyone.

Instead of letting poor home design eventually force you to rely on others for help, or even to move to a different home, consider some or all of these other access-enhancing adaptations:

  • Wider doorways and hallways make it easier for those using mobility aids and give the home an airy, open feeling.
  • Use non-slip flooring to make walking easier for everyone.
  • Grab rails in bathrooms and handrails on stairs make life safer for everyone.
  • Adjustable height counters and shelves in your kitchen can accommodate cooks in wheel-chairs.
  • Improved lighting, particularly in stairwells and work areas, makes the home safer and more comfortable to use.
  • Home elevators should be roughed-in to new construction and are a practical addition in many renovations, too.
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