Universal Design: Helping Older Adults Maintain Their Independence

Advancing age and conditions such as arthritis can make it hard to do certain things. Getting around, opening doors, and stepping into the tub may be more difficult. Most middle-aged or older adults want to keep living in their own homes as long as possible. Universal design features can help make that possible.

Universal design involves making a home safer and more practical to live in. This can benefit people of all ages and abilities. It can help older adults to live independently longer. For example, features in the house may be designed to decrease the need for bending, lifting, or reaching. These features blend in so they are attractive and useful.

Building or Remodeling Ideas

Some universal features require more effort than others. Examples are step-less entries and wider halls and doorways. They may only be possible when building a new home or remodeling an existing one. Other examples are:

  • Different levels of countertops and sinks—for people with different heights or who use a wheelchair
  • Using colors that contrast in kitchens and bathrooms—to help people who have eyesight problems
  • Placing light switches in convenient places
  • Using levers instead of doorknobs
  • Skylights to brighten hallways and rooms

Renovation Ideas

Are you planning to have repairs made to your home? If so, this is the best time to add universal features. Here are some ideas:

  • Install a tub with front-mounted faucets, wider and softer edges, or a built-in door.
  • Substitute a shower with a built-in or fold-down seat, a hand-held water control, and an infrared soap dispenser.
  • Install adjustable-height vanities in the kitchen and bathroom. This will decrease bending.
  • Add carousel and pull-out shelves to lower kitchen cabinets. Add pull-down shelves to wall cupboards.
  • Put in granite or another heat-resistant countertop near cooking areas. This can help a person quickly put down hot items.
  • Replace cabinet knobs with loop-style hardware. Make countertop corners rounded.
  • Purchase appliances with universal design. Examples are:
    • A side-hinged, wall-mounted oven
    • A ceramic flat-surface cooktop with front or side controls
    • A side-by-side refrigerator.
  • Remove interior doors to provide clearer openings.

Little things count, too. Reorganize cupboards. Store frequently used items between waist and shoulder height..

Quick Fixes

Inexpensive and easy fixes can make a big difference too. Here are some minor things people can do to help stay independent:

  • Use a reacher to pick up items on the floor.
  • Install a rail on the bed, grab rails in the bathroom, and a second handrail to the stairs.
  • Use a shower chair with rubber feet.
  • Add a light switch at both the bottom and the top of the stairs, and nonslip strips.
  • Place a wire rack in the sink to ease bending.
  • Use a tab grabber to open soft drink cans. Mount a jar opener under a wall cabinet.
  • Use lightweight cookware, nonslip bowls, padded-handle utensils, and molded glassware. This will make eating and drinking easier.

There are also many other devices to help make life easier and safer.

Putting It All Together

Minor changes can have a major impact on quality of life. Assistive devices and home adjustments help people do more things for themselves.


Center for Assistive Technology—State University of New York at Buffalo
Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access—State University of New York at Buffalo


Canadian Healthcare Network


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Home modifications to promote independent living. American Association of Retired Persons website. Available at: https://assets.aarp.org/rgcenter/ppi/liv-com/fs168-home-modifications.pdf. Accessed October 8, 2021.
How universal design creates a seamless aging-in-place experience. Aging in Place website. Available at: https://aginginplace.org/how-universal-design-creates-a-seamless-aging-in-place-experience/. Accessed October 8, 2021.
Universal design. PBS website. Available at:
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Accessed October 8, 2021.
Last reviewed October 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board
Last Updated: 10/8/2021

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