Universal Design: Helping Older Adults Maintain Their Independence

The principles of universal design involve making a home easier to live in and can allow older adults to live independently longer.

Not thrilled with the prospect of moving during their older years, baby boomers Lew and Ellen added universal design features to their Charlotte, North Carolina dream house. When relocating to Virginia, middle-agers Dean and Betsy bought a life-span-design home because it felt comfortable and homey. And New Yorker Rosemary made simple modifications to her mother's home, enabling her mother to live independently for an additional 8 years.

"We're planning ahead for our empty nest and retirement years," says Ellen. "But a lot of the decisions were made for aesthetic reasons."

Functional and Attractive

Unobtrusive, attractive, and practical, universal design creates environments with minimal hazards that people of all ages and abilities will find useful. Many elements decrease the need for bending, lifting, or reaching, but the term also applies to consumer products designed for simplicity and convenience.

Universal design is meant to blend in with the home, not stand out. The features are part of the design, so they are attractive and useful. A casual observer may not even notice the features are present.

Age and Independence

Advancing age and conditions such as arthritis can make getting around, opening doors, and stepping into the tub more difficult. Not surprisingly, studies show that most middle-age or older adults want to continue living in their own homes for as long as possible. Universal design features can help make that possible.

Home Modifications

Some universal concepts, such as step-less entries and wider halls and doorways, entail more effort and are sometimes only possible during the building of a new home or the remodeling of an existing one.

Some examples of home modification include:

  • Different levels of kitchen countertops or bathroom vanities to accommodate people of different heights or someone who uses a wheelchair
  • Contrasting countertop trim and surface colors in kitchens and bathrooms which help people who have low vision problems
  • Placing light switches in convenient locations
  • Using levers instead of doorknobs
  • Skylights to brighten hallways and rooms

Renovation Ideas

The best time to introduce universal features to an existing home is when you are renovating for another reason. If you are in this situation, consider the following suggestions:

  • 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 kitchen vanities or adjustable-height vanities in the bathroom to decrease bending.
  • Add carousel and pull-out shelves to lower kitchen cabinets, and pull-down shelves to wall cupboards.
  • Put in granite or another heat-resistant countertop near cooking areas, so a person can quickly put down hot items. Granite tiles are more affordable than a custom-cut piece.
  • Leave an 18-inch landing area next to each appliance and make countertop corners rounded.
  • Replace cabinet knobs with loop-style hardware.
  • Purchase appliances with universal design, such as a side-hinged, wall-mounted oven, a ceramic flat-surface cooktop with front or side controls, and a side-by-side refrigerator.
  • Raise the washer and dryer.
  • Remove interior doors to provide clearer openings.
  • Replace dead bolts that have small twist knobs with slide bolts.

The experts say that little things count, too. For example, reorganize cupboards to store frequently accessed items between waist and shoulder height.

Quick Fixes

Inexpensive and easily implemented modifications and assistive devices can dramatically improve an older person's well-being even when large-scale renovations are not possible. A controlled trial found that frail older adults who used assistive devices experienced less functional decline and pain and needed less health care assistance than did similar functioning elders without devices.

Here are some minor things people can do in an effort to stay independent:

  • Use a reacher to pick up items on the floor.
  • Install a bedrail on a regular bed or an electric bed.
  • Use a shower chair with rubber feet.
  • Add grab rails in the bathroom.
  • Add a second handrail to the staircase, 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.
  • Mount a jar opener under a wall cabinet.
  • Use lightweight cookware, nonslip bowls, and thicker, padded-handle utensils, and molded glassware to make eating and drinking easier.
  • Use a tab grabber to open soft-drink cans. This is especially helpful for people with arthritis.

There are tens of thousands of other assistive devices available that will 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 modifications help people to age gracefully and with dignity, because they enable them to do more for themselves. By incorporating universal design when planning renovations or building new homes, older adults can enjoy the best of all worlds: convenience, aesthetics, and peace of mind.


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
Government of Canada


Fact sheet: 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 June 8, 2017.
Falls in the elderly. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.... Updated February 10, 2017. Accessed June 8, 2017.
Universal design. Institute for Human Centered Disign website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Accessed June 8, 2017.
Universal design. PBS website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Accessed June 8, 2017.
Wilson DJ, Mitchell JM, Kemp BJ, Adkins RH, Mann W. Effects of assistive technology on functional decline in people aging with a disability. Assist Technol. 2009;21(4):208-217.
Last reviewed June 2017 by Michael Woods, MD, FAAP
Last Updated: 6/8/2017

EBSCO Information Services is fully accredited by URAC. URAC is an independent, nonprofit health care accrediting organization dedicated to promoting health care quality through accreditation, certification and commendation.

This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.

To send comments or feedback to our Editorial Team regarding the content please email us at healthlibrarysupport@ebsco.com. Our Health Library Support team will respond to your email request within 2 business days.