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Kitchen Design Considerations for Aging in Place

kitchen design considerations for aging in place

Janis Kent, Architect, FAIA, CASp © March, 2018; updated January 2019

When remodeling a kitchen, what are some design issues you might consider? We generally think of the appliances and locations, and then the countertop material and color. But there are additional items to consider if this is your forever home or if this is the one and only kitchen remodel you are thinking to do. So what are some issues to consider so the kitchen is useful as you age along with your house?


To start with, let’s look at the countertop. Many people will consider a polished granite countertop. Stone looks vibrant when polished, but will also be reflective with glare which can be problematic as our eyes age. If stone has large contrasting patterning, versus small texturing with minimal contrast, objects can get lost on the surface. Dark objects, such as knives, can be lost on a dark counter since there is no contrast. The same goes if the counter material is very light, then light colored objects, such as silverware, can get lost. A middle range color without contrasting patterning, and with a matt or leather finish might be the best combination to consider for aging. For a more vibrant patterning, use the back splash instead.


Cabinetry is another item, and traditionally we use 24” deep base cabinets with 12” deep wall cabinets. Consider a series of tall floor cabinets that vary in depth. 8” to 9” deep is good for can storage. 12” is good for bulk items. And 15” to 18” is good for larger entertaining and small appliances. Building out the back splash 3” to about 6” to 8” above the countertop surface provides a narrow shelf that can be used as an electrical chase for outlets placed horizontally and provides more open storage within reach range without losing useful counter space. Having some of the wall cabinets start on the countertop makes reaching items easier. If more storage can be placed lower, this helps avoid climbing on kitchen stools to reach high items and also places items within reach range for children.


Lighting is another important factor as we age. Light the work surfaces rather than use down lights lighting the floor. By placing light fixtures under the wall cabinets, the countertop can be directly lit or the back splash can be lit so the light bounces off and indirectly lights the countertop. If the wall cabinets do not go to the ceiling, then a linear light can be placed on top of the wall cabinets to light the ceiling – light will then bounce off of the ceiling and provide general lighting. Rather than placing one down-light over the sink, provide two. This way light is more evenly distributed which will not be blocked when working at the sink. Lighting is extremely important as we age and generally more is better. So provide dimmers for when only general lighting is necessary rather than light for working.


Microwave location is another issue to give some thought to. Microwaves were generally placed above ranges and also acted as a vent hood. This, though, is quite dangerous. Think, when you are zapping food to heat, it is now placed at face level, and when you take it out you are now pulling sizzling food towards your face. If it slips you can easily burn yourself. If the microwave is hung under wall cabinets it is not as dangerous since it is lower, but you are still pulling hot food towards you. Same is true if located on a countertop – although you are still pulling hot food to you, it is lower and can more easily be placed on the adjacent counter. Drawer microwaves in the base cabinet are much safer. When the microwave drawer opens, you basically lift hot food upwards to place on the counter, not pulling it towards you.


Some cooktop controls light up when turned on. Consider selecting ones located near the front so there is no need to reach across hot pots or burners. Some ovens have shelves that can fully extend making it easier to pull out pans. Some dishwashers have soap dispensers that can hold soap for a number of cycles making it easier not to have to load soap each time.


There are many convenience accessories that make using a kitchen easier. Rather than fixed shelves in the base cabinets, consider pull-out shelves with full extensions. This makes it easier to reach items in back. Consider storing baking sheets and other flat cooking items vertically in pullout shelves rather than stacking. This way you can avoid removing everything to get to the bottom sheet. Cake mixers can be located on pull up shelves within base cabinets. There are a variety of corner type of half-moon pull-out shelves for the dead spaces on inside corners.

All of these are options to consider, plus many more other non-traditional ideas. The idea is to make the kitchen workspace easier and safer to use as you age. Provide storage options so you do not have to climb up and down ladders. Or store items in a different manner, whether narrow shelves or vertically so it is not a struggle to reach in back or on the bottom. And light, light, and more light. So designing to make things easier to use later will also make the kitchen much easier and safer to use even now.

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