Think of closets when making homes age-friendly

By Maura Horton

Getting dressed in the morning is an activity most people take for granted. Opening a drawer and pulling out socks, walking into a closet and selecting a shirt and pants are tasks completed without a second thought. But for people with disabilities and limited mobility due to health conditions or aging, these daily tasks can be impossible without assistance in the traditionally built home.

According to AARP, nearly 90 percent of adults over 65 want to remain in their current homes as they grow older. In 2019, there were 54.1 million people 65 and older, and that number is projected to reach 94 million in 2060. Currently, 40 percent of older adults report having mobility issues, and according to the national Centers for Disease Control (CDC), one in four U.S. adults has a disability, with mobility ranking as the most common functional disability.

Usually, when a home is being designed for physical accommodations, people first think about making changes in kitchens and bathrooms where a lot of time is spent and people could encounter hazards like wet floors. But one area of the home that is often overlooked when planning for aging in place or adaptive design are closets.

Especially when designing for aging in place, it’s important to plan for future needs. Closets should have wider doorways, enough space to fit a wheelchair or walker without knocking into hangers or running into walls, and b free of obstructions. Doorways should also be free of transitions between flooring types to eliminate potential trip and fall hazards. Instead of a walk-in closet, the design style is wheel-in.

In addition to the structure of the closet, the hardware is also very important. Pulling open a door, even a sliding door, can be difficult if a person has arthritis, an upper-body limb difference, or is recovering from surgery, for example. Doors should be lightweight, hardware large and easy to grip. Self-closing drawers can be difficult to pull open for a person with limited upper-body strength and may need to be avoided. Drawer hardware should also be easy to grip but shouldn’t have sharp edges that protrude from the drawer front and could cause cuts and bruises on limbs.

Instead of stationary hanging racks, closets should be equipped with adjustable racks that can be pulled down manually to a lower level using a rod or automatically using a remote. This option maximizes storage space without limiting accessibility.

Storage at floor level can be as challenging as storage that is located too high if a person has difficulty bending over and balancing. Raised shoe racks and drawers at a mid-level height can help eliminate the need for strenuous movements daily.

Another important design factor for adaptive closets is lighting. Motion-sensing lighting, or placing a light switch outside the closet, can help reduce risks for injury if someone is entering a closet in the dark. Additional lighting along floors and even in drawers can make it easier to locate items if a homeowner has diminishing vision.

Designing an adaptive closet from scratch allows for more accommodations than altering an existing home. Obviously, there are more opportunities to design larger closets, but there are also opportunities to include blocking in the walls to make it easy to add grab bars in certain locations if they are needed in the future. Doorways can also be placed in areas that make it easier to open the door and enter the closet. But any existing closet can also be remodeled to fit the needs of the homeowner. The important considerations to keep in mind are grip strength, range of motion, reachability, and safety.


Maura Horton is an adaptive design expert and president of MagnaReady.