Safety with style - designing for disability

cmiller@newsobserver.comJune 21, 2013 

  • Preventing falls

    Older adults can reduce their chance of falling. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends these steps:

    • Exercise regularly. Focus on increasing leg strength and improving balance. Tai chi programs are especially good.

    • Ask a doctor or pharmacist to review medicines – both prescription and over-the-counter – to identify ones that may cause side effects or interactions such as dizziness or drowsiness.

    • Have an annual eye exam, and keep eyeglass prescriptions up to date.

    • Reduce tripping hazards, add grab bars inside and outside the tub or shower and next to the toilet, add railings on both sides of stairways and improve lighting where needed.

  • Coming next week:

    Part two: A full-scale ADA renovation

  • Retrofitting your space

    Here are some ways to make your home safer for an aging family member or one who has become disabled:


    • Measure equipment such as wheelchairs or commode chairs that must pass through interior doors. Sizes vary. Door too narrow? Consider removing it or reversing the swing. Offset, Z-shaped door hinges are another way to avoid major reconstruction.

    • Remove breakable objects from tables and shelves.

    • Maintain adequate passageways for wheelchairs – 36 to 48 inches.

    • Replace doorknobs and faucets with levers, which are easier to use.

    • Consider hardwood or tile floors, or choose carpet with low pile.

    In bed and bath

    • Choose a firm mattress, which will be easier to get into and out of.

    • Add pull handles or straps to dresser drawers for easier opening.

    • Consider equipping closets with sliding doors and rods 4-feet or less from the floor.

    • Reinforce walls for grab bars, which should be 2 to 2 1/2 feet long and 32 to 36 inches high.

    • Replace a standard showerhead with one that can be used as a hand-held unit.

    • Add a rubber mat and a stool to your shower or tub.

    • Install an anti-scald device to protect sensory-impaired skin from burns.

    • Avoid mats, choose no-slip ones or use rug-gripper tape to prevent slipping.

    In kitchen and laundry

    • Use pullout shelves or Lazy Susans in cabinets, open shelving and wall-mounted pegboards for pans and utensils.

    • Install a mirror over the stove to provide a view of contents in deeper pots.

    • Choose front-loading laundry equipment and a stove with front-mounted controls.

    Source: “Adapting a Home for Wheelchair Accessibility” by Kimberly Eberhardt Muir, Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago/LIFE Center

First of a two-part series

When my husband stumbled out of bed in the dark and lost his balance, tearing his ear on an open drawer as he crashed to the bamboo floor, we knew our bedroom needed a makeover.

The iron bed we dubbed Princess and the Pea because its cushy mattress stood 26 inches off the floor had become unsafe for Joe, who has Parkinson’s disease and dementia. The cheap dressers flanking the Princess were also a threat. They wobbled, and their drawers closed hard if at all, leaving sharp corners exposed. I feared Joe’s dresser might fall on him if he tried to steady himself against it.

Like many baby boomers, we were ready for a space that would be safe, comfortable and adaptable as we grow older and especially as Joe’s mobility declines. Falls, after all, are the leading cause of death due to injury for adults 65 and older. Joe turned 70 in April.

We called on designer Anne DeCocco of DeCocco Design in Raleigh to draw up a plan we could follow little by little as we found and could afford the right pieces.

We told her we would move an inherited wall unit to the dining room and get rid of everything else in the 13-by-16-foot space except an exercise bike. We wanted the room to echo the midcentury vibe in the rest of our townhouse. And we didn’t want to go broke. With DeCocco’s floor plan and furniture shopping tips, we now have a space where we expect to live for many years, safely, comfortably and independently – “aging in place,” as the experts call it.

Design dream

No. 1 was a bed that Joe could get into and out of without help, but we didn’t want a hospital bed. We needed storage and good light within reach, but no sharp corners on Joe’s side or oversized lamps that would topple should he grab them for support. The floor plan would have to provide 3- to 4-foot pathways for his walker and perhaps a wheelchair someday. I pined for a chaise where I could snooze nearby when tremors make Joe restless, and a pretty area rug to add a luxurious feel.

Design reality

DeCocco told us to forget about a large rug (“Rugs are really tricky with walkers, and I’d forgo any that aren’t necessary,” she said) – and a chaise, which would be too big.

Instead, a small recliner could fit into a corner, leaving room for a console or dresser, a king-size platform bed, mix-and-match nightstands, and even the exercise bike, DeCocco suggested.

The new

We repainted the tired yellow walls with Benjamin Moore’s Flowering Herbs/514, a soft olive that created a neutral backdrop for a palette of cream, navy, aqua and rust. The color carries through to the adjacent bath. The eggshell finish reflects light and is scrubbable.

Our not-so-old mattress now rests on a sturdy mahogany platform. At 22 inches from the floor, the mattress is at the height considered optimal for transfer to and from a wheelchair, according to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

Joe is able to get into and out of bed more easily. With its button-tufted white leather headboard, the bed’s Bauhaus-inspired design had the feel we were after and no sharp edges. We bought it on sale and paid two pros to assemble it.

We chose a Riley high-leg recliner from La-Z-Boy, browsing online first, then visiting the store to order it in navy leather. The recliner’s chunky legs are sturdy and carry the dark wood of the platform across the space. A small chairside table is a handy spot for a magazine or cup of tea and its sparkly base repeats the chrome accents in our lamps.

The recycled

To save money and get the look we were after, we brought in two vintage Heywood-Wakefield pieces won at auction – a small nightstand with rounded edges for Joe and a console for our clothes and TV.

We also scored a mirrored glass nightstand for my side of the bed. Apparently a Neiman-Marcus floor sample, it was in pristine condition and roughly half price.

Our his-and-hers nightstands are the same height, but a narrower one on Joe’s side leaves room to keep his walker and canes at the ready. Paths on both sides of the bed are wide enough for a transport chair if needed.

Both bedside tables have drawers for storage and cubbies below. Joe uses his to stash his slippers out of his way.

Mixing and matching nightstands gives the space an informal, curated-over-time feel.


We considered wall-mounted, swing-arm lamps on both sides of the bed but ruled them out, fearing Joe might be tempted to grab them for support and hurt himself. Small lamps of chrome and crystal block shouldn’t present that danger. They provide some sparkle, ample light and best of all, plug into $15 adapters that let us turn them on and off with a touch of the hand.

A $34.99 rug from a big-box store provides a warm spot for bare feet in front of the recliner and a smaller version protects the floor under the exercise bike without obstructing Joe. Both rugs have anti-skid backing.

Finishing touches

We covered the existing wood blinds with a Roman shade. We can pull the blinds up out of the way or close them tight for privacy – a must since we removed the door between the bedroom and adjoining tub-and-sink area of the bath so Joe’s walker would fit through the frame.

We tuck in the cream-colored silk comforter for a streamlined look and to remove tripping hazards. Two throws – one hand-stitched in our accent color of aqua and a knit blanket in rust – and a pair of Pottery Barn pillows carry the color scheme through the space.

Next week: A full-scale ADA renovation

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service