Aging at Home? Be the Host With the Most (Visitability)

steps to front door of a wood...
steps to front door of a wood...

In recent posts, I explored the health value of staying socially connected.

One big way of staying socially connected is to have people over to the house. And you want to be able to drop by at friends and family, too.

But what happens if your home has too many steps, or the hall is too narrow for a wheelchair? What happens if you're the one in the chair, and your best friend's house has steep steps going up to the front porch? As more people have more trouble with mobility, is this going to become a more-frequent barrier to getting together?

We all like to be good hosts, and yet our spaces can create an uncomfortable disconnect between our desire and our ability to make people feel at home.

It's something I'm thinking about these days, as we're expecting a special houseguest who sometimes uses a walker. Being the author of a book about aging at home, I know exactly what's wrong, yet I can't do much to fix it (we're moving out in weeks).

It's not just older houses or small apartments. Even modern "open concept" designs can have tight corners, winding stairs and snug powder rooms. What's more, in my neck of the northern woods, architects freely use stairs to lift main entrances up above the snow line while allowing the necessary basements to get a bit of natural light. Home entries include assorted concrete steps, sometimes without handrails... and you can bet they're slippery in the winter.

Of increasing necessity is born a social movement, and with the movement comes a term: visitability.

Although "visitability" was not invented out of concern for older people specifically, its importance should be obvious for this expanding age group.

Visitability, also called "basic home access" and "inclusive home design," strips concepts of accessibility and accommodation down to the minimum required to help others be welcome in your home. The push is for new design to incorporate three simple elements and for renovations to focus on them first.

According to one visitability resource website, the 1-2-3 of visitability includes:

• One zero-step entrance.
• Doors with 32 inches of clear passage space.
• One bathroom on the main floor you can get into in a wheelchair.

Concrete Change, an advocacy organization, views visitability as a basic matter of fairness. It's pushing to mandate "visitability" so that people requiring it are no longer shunted aside to a kind of "special-needs housing" category.

The Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access says visitability is based on the conviction that inclusion of basic architectural access features in all new homes is a civil and human right and improves livability for all. You can find design and related resources on its website.

The Canadian Centre on Disability Studies has launched its own VisitAbility project to promote these new housing standards.

My book addresses the many ways that universal design can make it possible to live comfortably and fully with thoughtful attention to our "built" environments. Visitability captures the "least common denominator" in universal design to at least ensure that domestic life can be shared freely without barriers.

A visitable home is a home that is desirable for all the generations -- for families pushing kids in strollers, for home workers accepting delivery packages, for older people and visiting grandparents.

By opening our homes to others, we also make them better homes for ourselves. So look at your home through the eyes of visitors, and press for change as well. You might not need it for yourself, right now, but eventually someone is going to cross that threshold... and it's better when the threshold is low.