Think ahead about accessibility in housing

Long flight of steps. Silhouette of human wearing pants. Test: Too many stairs. Think Accessibility. Someone will thank you. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt


And it’s a bit of an exaggeration to think that every single home in the nation should be accessible to people with physical disabilities.

Or is it?

Odd development.

We bought this house when we were both young and childless because it was the ONLY home left in this particular subdivision, the ONLY one with mature trees that the real estate agents showed us, the ONLY one on a quiet cul-de-sac.

I fell in love with the trees.

New construction in New Jersey tends to be on former farmland. That’s because of the tax structure: farmland is encouraged, so vast tracts of land in the Garden State are technically farms, and something is planted often enough to keep this tax designation. Not for me to understand or go into the details of that.

But every once in a while, someone who needs money (probably), maybe as a result of a death in the family and land passing to a younger generation, or need for more McMansions, or whatever, sells a plot of land which is converted to residential and immediately turned into mushrooms: houses dotting the land with no trees around them.

Many of the young urban professionals who then move to the new suburbs are a bit cash-challenged, and they do minimum landscaping, so that years later the developments STILL look like blank canvases – with a few huge houses sticking up, one per acre or so, with a few bushes around the base of each.

Free exercise?

Our house is a split level. With the framed-in attic, it had FIVE levels, joined by FOUR staircases of 7, 7, 7, and 5 steps. We eventually turned that attic level into a fourth bedroom and bath – occupied first by the nanny for the two oldest, then me with the youngest after a couple of problems made it desirable for her and I to sleep together for the first year. After that, the oldest child still at home got the privacy and status of the aerie. Each in turn.

I noticed, even back before kids, that we tended to live on two of the levels – living room/dining room/kitchen plus main bedroom/master bath – and I was already limiting the number of times I’d go down to the basement.

Then I had the first two, and then I got ME/CFS, and things got rapidly worse, and then the third child…

For a healthy young mother who needs lots of exercise, and has a lot of energy, maybe wasting a bunch of it on stairs makes sense. Every time a baby needs changing, a toddler someone to help at the potty, a kid to be reminded of doing homework, a husband or wife to be called to dinner – stairs.

As a nation, we don’t plan ahead for accessibility

Grab bars in showers, clearly helpful for anyone from a young child learning to shower on her own to a mother recovering from a C-section – should be required in every tub/shower enclosure. They aren’t. I have been using the shower door’s towel rack for this for decades, always conscious that it couldn’t take real stress – because it wasn’t designed for that.

Floor plans with hallways wide enough for a wheelchair aren’t built – who could possibly need them?

MOST homes become a trap for the disabled. I can’t tell you the number of days, when the back pain from botched back surgery in 2007 was particularly bad, that I literally crawled up those flights.

And as vertical stability even on good days has become a challenge, how many times I come down one of those short flights backward because one hand holds a few things, while the better right hand grabs the rail – because we have them only on one side of the stairs.

My husband’s mom hard a hard time getting up to the living room as she aged. Was that part of the reason they didn’t come often? I hope not.

Guests from a singing group had the same problem – as we all aged, some had a very hard time (at all the homes in the group), even those four or five steps to a front door became problematic.

So, at a time when some people would like to age in place a little longer, that much-loved home becomes dangerous.

The worst part?

When you go to sell a house, often to much younger people, accessibility features that are too obvious say ‘old’ and ‘dated’ and ‘belongs to someone I don’t want to think about becoming’ – and are literally detriments to a sale.

No one wants to think ahead.

The thought of needing accessibility features some time in the future scares off buyers.

Ours aren’t too obvious – we never installed those grab bars, or added the second handrail on each section of stairs, and don’t have wider hallways (it’s a tract house, lovingly landscaped over the years) or an accessible kitchen.

I’ve never had the energy to insist on making my own home more accessible and convenient for me, since I don’t absolutely have to have a wheelchair yet, and can get around on the bad days by hanging on to things.

Do I want to stay in this house?

We’re past that point now, as I also don’t want to be stuck in this climate, and we don’t need the two extra bedrooms any more, and more and more of my older friends have either moved away or don’t get out much either.

The kids are flown each to a different State of the Union. And as far from each other as possible.

But it’s never really been an option to stay.

We moved in in 1981!

And will move out in 2018.

I don’t have a choice: I have been defeated for a long time. I just didn’t want to admit it. Or rather, I did – at least five years ago – but it’s taken this long (and some life events) to get the husband fully committed to the idea of transitioning into a much smaller apartment in a retirement community with facilities – such as a pool, gym, and daily dinner. And one with, we hope, no accessibility problems.

This time I’m thinking it through, all the way to the possible wheelchair.

There’s a reason old homesteads used to have a suite built on the main floor – the ‘southwest corner’ – in advance of needing it, for a widowed parent or maiden aunt. Good view, warmth – and no stairs.

It’s about time.

Have you thought about accessibility?

Thanks, as usual, to Stencil for the use of up to ten free graphics a month. It’s been fun to pick an image, think up some words, play with their text features, and insert at the beginning something that ‘goes with’ what the post is about.


14 thoughts on “Think ahead about accessibility in housing

  1. Jeanne

    I hurt my knee at the age of 22 and moved to the house I raised kids in after my first knee surgery, so I had a clue. Our house is a ranch house with a full basement. There’s nothing downstairs that I have to get to–even the washer and dryer are on our main level. Our downstairs is full of books and we have the tv down there, but during my first knee replacement my husband brought the tv upstairs for a few months.
    People have commented on how “lucky” I am to live in such an accessible house. I was just less clueless than most.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      While the house is ‘under repair’ and we’ve moved so much stuff out permanently, the TV ended up a second flight of stairs down from where it usually is – and I’m finding I don’t have the energy to go down that far, and then have to come back up! No great loss, and the husband is enjoying watching what he wants without consulting me, as we usually find something on Amazon or Netflix both of us can stand to watch. I know I can watch something entirely different on my big monitor – may just do that in the future.

      Glad you have everything in place – this 5-level split can’t even have an elevator installed! We only bought this house, never intending to remain 37 years, because of the location I still love, or I would never have bought a split-level. It seems nicer – only a half-flight between levels – until you realize how far the laundry is from the bedrooms, etc.

      You may now age gracefully where you already live!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Janna G. Noelle

    I don’t own a house (I live in a rented apartment), but accessibility has popped up on my radar over the last couple of years while seeing my dad struggling to navigate our family home during the last years of his life. It is exactly as you say, that things we can do easily and take for granted in youth become difficult if not impossible with old age or even unexpected disability (and I’m not even sure what I mean by “unexpected” because we will ALL end up disabled at some point; it’s just a matter of when, and not necessary only later in life).

    Even where I live in my building isn’t really accessible. The building has an elevator, but to get to my unit I have to go down a short flight of steps that no one in a wheelchair or other mobility issues would be able to navigate, with no other way of accessing it.

    I’m not certain but I believe there are new laws (local? regional?) in Canada dictating that all new residential buildings need to have accessibility features.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Even if the law exists, it will probably cover only new construction (the builders’ lobby fights such improvements because they cost), and it will take a long time before most buildings and PUBLIC spaces are accessible to the PUBLIC – in a dignified way. One more of the many fights we have to keep up against selfish interests. If they really investigated, they’d find the changes are needed by far more people than they think.


  3. Kris Naelapaa

    When I had my townhouse built I put a grab bar in the shower. Also 2 sides of handrails up the stairs. Good thing.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Excellent pre-planning. We should have – long ago – I really could have used them all, especially after last year’s stents. If it had been me being the healthy one, and watching husband climb up stairs on his hands and knees for years, it would have gotten done. I could have demanded it. I haven’t had the energy.

      The handrails would have been problematic, as each has been hand-crafted and hand-finished – at a different time. Duplicating them would have been tough. Again, husband’s lovely work.

      So glad you’ve had yours. I’m right – just don’t have the energy to enforce it.


  4. Widdershins

    When I was studying architecture, I once ‘discussed’ with a visiting architect (one of the young arrogant sort) how the access to one of his buildings excluded anyone who wasn’t childless and an olympic athlete. Needless-to-say, our chat went downhill after that. 😀 … I did enjoy pulling his chain though!


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Karma can be a bit*h. Arrogance in the young may protect them, but it is a major irritation. I hope some day he understands, but wonder how he was brought up to be so ignorant.

      Access can be gracefully designed in – or added later. Or it can be ugly. I hate the way I have to park on odd bits of the back lot to go in through a service entrance to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Yes, access. No, welcome.

      It gets old.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. joey

    An important post. I’ve considered this quite a bit. Particularly a ramp for the front door. My MIL struggles to get up to our front porch and our wheeled friend will visit, and we would like to allow both the dignity of self-direction. Not to mention, any one of us could be injured at any ol time. Inside the house, now 100 years old, the ability to wheel about is good.
    I love my porcelain tub, because it holds heat and keeps my bath warmer longer, but I have had terrible luck keeping anything textured stuck to it. Bath mats can get gross, but they’re also safe.
    I would like to see more safety and accessibility for all. I think when I was young I felt invincible, right up to wheeling around double strollers.
    My husband’s knees are bad, and that’s what took him to the one-story idea. They ain’t gonna get better.
    We built our first home on undeveloped land. Oh the horror. Not just the taxes, but the shoddy, half-assed construction. Truly, it was a lot more bang for our buck, but it also taught me what I really wanted in a home.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      This: ‘any one of us could be injured at any ol time.’

      Or have a baby, or have a teen break an ankle playing soccer. Or need back surgery. Or, as you said, need a slope to get in safely.

      ‘Self-direction’ is a beautiful way to say ‘not excluded.’

      Liked by 1 person

  6. marianallen

    I did not know that about old homesteads. I love learning new things! Well, new people things. Electronic learning curves, not quite so much. Our house is not built for accessibility, either. When we get beyond it, we could move to Mom’s, which IS accessible, or just live on the first floor. Charlie frequently says, “We didn’t think about getting old.”


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I don’t think you’ve had all that much time to think in the last few years while you were caring for your mom. But we learned a lot from what happened to our parents. I knew I needed to move because my husband isn’t cut out to be the kind of caretaker I might need, and I don’t want him stressed out by the process. Plus I can’t take care of him – if it goes that way – because I simply can’t, physically AND mentally.

      I can take care of myself because he keeps the refrigerator stocked. And still do a few things.

      The more important part, the one people don’t think about, is that you may last longer, especially as a couple, if you move and adjust sooner rather than later – it seems expensive, until you compare what the personal costs of taking care of a home are, the unpaid labor, the endless list of things to do.

      I think my husband will last longer if he doesn’t have to worry about a whole bunch of things, from pruning bushes to home repair, that he doesn’t enjoy – he does them because they have to be done. I know I will last longer with less worry.

      And I’ve seen too many friends let the logical point to move get past them, and then the results of that. One sick friend is caring for the wife who used to care for HIM – but now has Alzheimer’s. He didn’t magically get better because she can’t function any more; they are barely coping, and will end up having to be rescued by their kids and placed in assisted living at the next crisis.

      People worry about writing their wills because they think they will then die. We bit that bullet many years ago when we had our first child. We didn’t die.

      No one likes to think of becoming more fragile, even if healthy! So they wait until a crisis comes along to force them. I’ve been a crisis for almost thirty years!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. marianallen

        Charlie used to enjoy all the caretaking duties around the house, but how all he enjoys is getting in wood, because he can do it without thinking. We’re lucky in having our kids close by. We’ve made our wills, and we’ve arranged and paid for our cremations. Our next step, when I get Mom’s affairs in order, is to talk to a lawyer about a living trust. Then we’ll talk about moving to assisted living. Neither one of us is ready for that now, but I have my eye on a couple of local places. You’ve helped me see the necessity of getting ALL those ducks in a row.


        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          If your kids are close, and willing, you can stay home much longer, and may never need assisted living or a nursing home.

          Many things CAN be arranged in-home – under many circumstances.

          It isn’t always best, because assistance is not the same thing as helping someone thrive – which may require different skills than caretaking and good will.

          I document our journey because we’ve looked a lot of things in the face. We don’t have ANY help from neighbors, probably because I haven’t been able to reciprocate in almost three decades. A friend of mine’s mother depends on HER neighbors – and I’ve heard a lot about it – but neighbors are NOT enough to keep a person with dementia safe in her home.

          Not advocating any particular solution – just the thought and preplanning that goes into thinking it ALL the way through, including illness, dementia, and things like falls. I watched my SIL manage her parents final years, and get mired in all kinds of stuff which might or might not happen in an institution such as a CCRC. I still worry about who takes the remaining spouse to the doctor, and coordinates with other doctors; nursing homes and AL places might just send someone to the hospital, and we know how that goes. Even the ones at CCRCs. So many questions!

          It sound like you and Charlie are well prepared already – and are plugging the holes. That is the gift you are giving your kids. You’re well ahead of many people.

          Liked by 1 person

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