Aging at home: How to age-proof a kitchen for older adults

Senior cooking in the ktchen
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Kitchens are the heart of the home, but for many older people they become harder to use. High storage space they could stretch up to a few years ago is inaccessible or a chore to reach. They may even feel slightly worried about standing on a chair or ladder to reach that pot or pan as they are unsteady on their feet. And cooking can quickly become a labor they don't have the will or energy to tackle. 

This can result in unhealthy eating habits, a lack of appetite or even weight loss. If your parents or grandparents are finding cooking increasing difficult, there are ways to redesign the kitchen to make it an age-friendly environment. This can range from implementing easy-to-access storage options to making kitchen essentials like the sink easier to use. 

One important precaution to undertake when redesigning a kitchen for older adults is fall-prevention measures. The older you get, the greater the risk is you are going to hurt yourself when falling. This is particularly worrying, because older people are less steady on their feet. The majority of home injuries in the elderly are falls. So, creating a wide space, with no hard edges and non-slip flooring is important. 

This guide will take you through some of the most common solutions to age-proofing a kitchen and how these solutions help ease the burden of cooking. 

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Adjust sink height to suit the resident

The height of the sink should adjust to the height of the individual. If the person is smaller in size, working at a sink that is a little too high for them might place a strain on their muscles as they stretch to reach plates in the bottom of the sink or switch off the faucet. If the person is tall, they may need to hunch over to use the sink, which can be a struggle or painful. 

Adjusting the sink's height will lessen the strain and burden placed on people with arthritis and muscle weakness. 

Install a roll-under sink for wheelchairs

If your older loved one is in a wheelchair, having a roll-under sink is a good idea. This just means that the person's legs could fit under the sink, effectively turning it into a desk-like structure. This lets them bring the wheelchair closer to the sink, giving them easier access, thus reducing the risk of them falling out of the wheelchair while reaching for something.

Side-mounted lever-controlled faucets

Lever-controlled faucets, as opposed to knob handles, are a great addition to a sink for anyone that is suffering from arthritis or muscle degeneration. The flat lever shaped handle means the person doesn't need to grip or clench a hard to turn knob with inflamed joints. All that is needed is pressure from a hand to move it up or down. This allows people with arthritis easier control over the flow of water and temperature. 

Having the faucet mounted on the side of the sink also makes it easier to access. 

Install a shallow sink

It is better to have shallower sinks in kitchen for older adults. We recommend depths of about six inches. Deep sinks are usually harder for people with muscle weakness to use. Due to the depth of the sink the person has to be working down at an angle and dragging plates or dishes through a heavier volume of water. This can be particularly difficult for people who have trouble gripping items. So a shallow sink lessens the amount of stretching that an elderly person has to do. 

Installing a dishwasher can be the best option, depending on how the person adapts to new technology. If installing a dishwasher, you might want to raise if off the floor a little. This will lessen the amount of bending over and crouching the person will have to do during loading and unloading. 

Shallow sinks also make it a lot easier for to wash vegetables and for food preparation. 

Sinks should be near the stove

Sinks should also be placed near the stove. This will decrease the distance that pans full of water have to be transported back and forth between the sink and the stove. This will ease the strain and level of work when cooking as preparing food will be strenuous. 

It is advisable to leave a stretch of worktop between the stove and sink – not place them right next to each other. This just makes it easier to place pans down when preparing a large meal or complex recipes. 

Get rid off hard edges

Replacing the sharp corners and hard edges of kitchen worktops, tables and shelving with rounded edges can help prevent nasty injuries. It is very easy to snag skin, or scratch yourself against the corners of a worktop. This is particularly dangerous for the elderly who are prone to falling. Curved edges reduce the number of sharp corners and lower the risk of serious injury. 

Older adults tend to have more fragile skin, and as many seniors take anti-coagulant medicine for heart irregularities such atrial fibrillation, a simple scratch or small cut from a fall could quickly turn into a serious injury. 

Create wheelchair space around the kitchen

Design the kitchen with enough space for a wheelchair. The American with Disabilities Act does provide very specific and helpful guidelines on the space needed for wheelchairs. They state the space between opposing kitchen cabinets or walls should be at least 60 inches in a U-shaped kitchen. If it is a gallery-style kitchen the space should be 40 inches. 

Even if the older adult isn't in a wheelchair, it is still a good idea to create this wide, open space. It provides a large, uncluttered area for people who are unsteady on their feet, and lowers the risk of them bumping into something. 

Replace cabinets with pull-out drawers

Elderly people can find the standard design kitchen cabinets difficult to use. Most kitchen cabinets require you to kneel or crouch down low as you fish through the content looking for that single item you need, often stacked under one or two other items. 

A good solution to this problem is installing large pull-out drawers. These drawers offer a good amount of storage and are easier to access without bending or crouching. As most of the items in the drawers are flat packed, it makes finding your utensils or pans easier than traditional cabinets. This means that an older adult doesn't have to bend over, crouch or be on their feet as long when compared to traditional cabinets. 

These drawers should have grab handles or V-shaped insets that make them easy to grab and open for people with stiff joints. 

Make sure the floor is slip-resistant

Flooring should be one of the top priorities in a kitchen. Spills and wet floors are a daily occurrence in this area of the house, so the best kitchen flooring has a non-slip surface.

Some great choices for flooring can be non-slip tiles, or a low pile carpet. Cork covers can provide additional non-slipping properties and are nice and soft on the feet. However, we recommend vinyl as the best choice as it offers non-slip properties with a soft comfortable feel on the feet. The soft nature of the floor is also ideal should the the person have a fall. Hard tile floors are less forgiving.

If the person is in a wheelchair, hardwood flooring is a great choice. It is easier to move over than carpet flooring, and not as easily damaged as vinyl. 

One thing to check with tiles is that the grouting is secure between them, and they are firmly held in place at a uniform level. Loose tiles, and sudden dips make trips more likely. 

Don't be tempted by a rug

Rugs can be a tempting addition to any kitchen. However, they are also trip hazards, especially on slippery surfaces. Statistically, rugs are one of the most dangerous fall hazard in the home, with the stairs being the first. 

As such it is best not to have a rug in the kitchen. If a rug is a must-have item for you, consider one with a low edge that you won't catch your foot on and a rubber backing so it is held secure even on slippery surfaces. Another way is to secure it in place with double-sided tape. 

If you are worried about an elderly person aging in place falling, fall detection sensors can offer great peace of mind with a device that will warn you if your older loved one does have a fall in their home.

Richard is a writer and editor. He published his first technology related piece about a Spectrum Sinclair 128K at ten years old, when he was a runner up in a dyslexic poetry competition. He has been writing or researching in and around science and technology since – although the work is usually less lyrical. He has worked on everything from technical manuals for users to white papers and reviews.