Although some people believe that fashion is sacrificed when functionality takes precedence, the opposite is true when it comes to a concept known as universal design. “Universal design” is a term that broadly refers to the idea that all design—products, technologies and structures—should serve the broadest range of people, regardless of ability, mobility, age, gender or physical stature, without adaptation or specialized features. Universal design is especially important when it comes to designing a kitchen. From appliances to counter height, a kitchen space should be created with the end user in mind.
When adding onto or redesigning a kitchen for older adults, it helps to remember the following principles, which are meant to ensure flexibility and to include simple and intuitive products and appliances.
- The kitchen’s design should make it equally usable by everyone. In other words, the way the kitchen is configured should never isolate or stigmatize any group of users or privilege one group over another.
- The kitchen should be designed so people can use its features in more than one prescribed way—for example, it might have a countertop orientation map that’s viewable from either a seated or standing position.
- The purpose of each feature in the kitchen should be easy for everyone to understand. All of the kitchen’s features should also be easy to use, without any hidden or confusing features.
- The kitchen should provide all essential information in more ways than one—written, symbolic, tactile and verbal—to make sure everyone who comes through it can understand how to use different features regardless of their abilities. This simply means that instructions should be visible or audible at all times.
- The design of the kitchen should eliminate, isolate or shield any design features that could be hazardous or inconvenient to any user. Hard or sharp edges, malfunctioning appliances or out-of-date materials should be removed from the space.
- The kitchen’s design should include features that require little or no physical strength to use.
- There should be enough space and appropriate arrangements in the kitchen so that anyone can use it.
Ideally, universal design means good design that can be used in any setting. With these points in mind, let’s explore ways to create a fashionable and functional kitchen for all ages.
General Considerations for a Fashionable and Functional Kitchen
First and foremost, the kitchen should be accessible to everyone. As the heart of the home, the kitchen is a place where families get together, where weekday date nights happen and midnight snacks are gathered. For older adults, a well-designed kitchen space is a big help in maintaining independence.
Start by making sure the flooring in your kitchen is flat and smooth. This is especially critical for adults who need wheelchairs, walkers or extra assistance in getting around. If you want to add an area rug, opt for a short-pile material over thicker, nubby textures that can cause snagging underfoot.
Next, choose convenient, stair-less parts of the kitchen to install appliances like ovens, stoves and refrigerators for easy accessibility. Everyone should be able to lend a helping hand when preparing family dinners, whether it’s grabbing eggs from the fridge or sliding cookies into the oven. Lastly, make sure your kitchen design offers plenty of accessible storage. Not only does storage reduce kitchen clutter, it also keeps work surfaces neat and clean, which helps avoid spills or accidents.
Elements of a Safe and Comfortable Kitchen
While universal design offers the basics for creating a safe kitchen space, the term doesn’t necessarily connote coziness. Here are some of our favorite ways to create a kitchen that satisfies safety measures as well as a comfortable space for all to enjoy:
- If you don’t cook often, you won’t necessarily need a traditional kitchen island. Instead you could use a kitchen cart or mobile island. These can be rolled in if you need an extra work surface and move it out of the way when not in use to make the kitchen more open and accessible.
- Use lighter colors to brighten the space. Lighter, brighter hues make your space look larger and more inviting while also allowing you to see every square inch clearly.
- Install more floor cabinets and less overhead cabinetry. As we age, our agility and mobility wanes. When redesigning or renovating your kitchen, keep in mind cabinet height. Upper cabinets should be no more than 4 feet from the floor, as the lower height makes them easier to reach from a sitting or standing position.
- Select countertops at varying heights to accommodate sitting and standing, especially for older adults. Give your future self and older loved ones a break by making sure your counter heights are optimized for working while standing and seated.
Comfortably Accessing Appliances
Last but certainly not least, making sure you can access your favorite kitchen appliances is essential to a kitchen remodel. One way to do this is by raising the dishwasher 8 inches above the floor to help facilitate loading and unloading. This is also great if you have nieces, nephews or grandchildren who come over often and need a helping hand in reaching the dishes.
If you’re doing a complete remodel, consider updating all of your appliances. Not only will brand new appliances enhance the look and feel of your space, they also help ensure easier access and use for everyone. Lastly, consider small appliances where appropriate. Smaller appliances that are lightweight and easy to grip mean more kitchen space to moving around in and a safer, sleeker overall look.
What are some changes you’re considering in your kitchen remodel? We’d love to hear your tips and tricks on designing a safe and comfortable space for all ages!
Interior design specialist Kerrie Kelly heads up her own firm, Kerrie Kelly Design Lab, and is also a Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS). Kerrie writes on design topics of interest to seniors and other age groups for Home Depot. To research kitchen utility tables as part of a senior-friendly kitchen plan, you can visit Home Depot’s website.