AARP's Amy Levner chatted about smart home design for seniors | Home Front

Mar 07, 2013

Amy Levner is responsible for AARP's work on promoting the features that make communities great places to live for everyone: good home design, expanding transportation options, and ensuring access to the services we all need in our daily lives. She chatted with readers about smart home design and technology for seniors.

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. Got a question about decorating? She's happy to whip out her paint chips and suggest the perfect hue, call a retailer to help track down a hard-to-find accent piece or offer some do-it-yourself. Built on years of reporting experience, Home Front is an online conversation about the best way to feather the nest. We invite you to submit questions and share you own great tips, ideas and, yes, the occasional complaint.

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I hope everyone read Local Living's Tech issue today which is chock full of good advice. My story featured tech gadgets to make senior living easier and safer and one of my sources was Amy Levner, who is responsible for AARP's work in this area. She is an expert on good home design, expanding transportation options and ensuring access to the services seniors need in our daily lives. I'm sure you have lots of questions for her so let's get going.

What are three things you can do to help senior parents be safer in their own homes?

1-Bathrooms - this is the most dangerous room in the house for any family member, honestly.  Check flooring, ease of using the bath and shower - particularly getting in and out of it; consider a "comfort height" toilet; install grab bars (many look like towel racks now, and again we could ALL use these) - be sure to have a professional do this and make sure they're properly secured behind the wall.

2 - Kitchen - again, make sure it's easy to use - is food ready accessible, are the controls on appliances intuitive, is it easy to manuever around the area?

3 - First floor living - is there a bedroom, access to a full bath and the kitchen on the main floor?

Also know that the ideal is a step-free entry into the house (via a garage is fine).

We have some great checklists here - look at the links in the box.


Great topic. I'm concerned about night vision, and looked for some sort of inexpensive light that i can place under the lip of the stairs in my home so that i can see the edge of the stair and not miss it. I looked at the hardware store and found long strings of lcd lighting, but nothing that emphasized the lip. Stairs are such a hazard, especially at night. Any ideas? If this is too detailed, no need to answer.

Two ideas: 1 - you could paint the lip of the stairs with a contrasting color that may be easier to see at night.  2 - you could try to run lighting along the sides of the wall at stair level - there are inexpensive LEDs that stick on the wall that could do the trick here. Check the home saftey checklist here:  It mentions non-slip reflective tape you can put on the edge of stairs too.

My parents are in their mid 70s and are casually looking for a smaller home. We looked at one home that had just been remodeled. The kitchen was beautiful but had a Wolf range. My house has a Wolf range, and the door is so incredibly heavy, that my mom can't open or shut it. I told my mom that she couldn't buy the house because she'd never be able to use the oven!

This is a great point.  Appliances need to be user-friendly for everyone, or they won't be used!  Be sure to test things like opening and closing ovens, fridges, dishwashers, etc. when you're shopping.

Are there designers or contractors who specialize in designing for seniors? Where can I find one?

Yes - Certified Aging in Place Specialists - CAPS - are remodelors who specialize in this work - here's a link:  Designers can be found here:

· (interior deisgners) and (kitchen and bath)

We've lived in our home for 30 years and want to live here for another 30! Our kitchen hasn't been renovated for some time and we want to open it up and make it a real living space. Can you give us a few tips on what to include?

Good for you! Opening up a cramped kitchen will make it more spacious and ergonomic, and that much more enjoyable to spend time in with family and friends. Here are a 3 key design features to include, if you have the space:

·         Roomy 48 inches aisles (good for multiple cooks, mobility aides, baby carriages)

·         Multiple height countertops for standing and seated usage

·         Place to dine (at the island, countertop, or table)

Jura, any suggestions for a paint color to go with West Elm's Sketch duvet cover? The background of the bedding is on the tan side of ivory, in my opinion. Walls are currently off-white. Hubby won't go for dark colors, and the room is north-facing (in the Pacific NW) so there isn't much natural light. Thank you!

You know it looks very nice in the photo next to the charcoal gray walls, but I guess your husband would find something like Benjamin Moore's Dior Gray or Eclipse too dark. What about Martha Stewart for Home Depot's Sisal or Tobacco Leaf?

Is there such a thing as an attractive, stylish grab bar for a standing shower?

Yes!  There are all kinds of finishes and styles now - you'd be amazed.  Chrome, brushed nickel, etc. - whatever matches your style.  They also have nice design touches that help them blend into the decor.  They look like extra towel racks.  My hope is that they will become a standrd part of good design in a bathroom.  Baths are so slippery, we could ALL use more grab bars.

Does AARP have any policy on home energy efficiency requirements, and/or any programs that help seniors make home improvements that might lower their utility bills? Is it tougher to get seniors to want to make such improvements since the financial gains can be kind of long-term?

We have some suggestions on ways to make homes more energy efficient here.


Can you describe the best choice for a shower when renovating a bathroom for a couple in their sixties?

I'd recommend a shower with a no-step entry, and non-slip flooring, easy to use faucets, blocking in the walls for grab-bars.  If there's room, a seat is nice too.  Don't forget good lighting!

Check out the bathroom checklist here.

Real Estate agents indicate it is hard to sell a home that does not have a tub, only a shower. Is that true?

If your house has more than one bathroom, then you can easily convert the master bath to shower only, leaving another bathroom with a tub.  Please check with local realtors for any state codes or requirements that mandate tubs in bathrooms.

Aside from the Moen device listed, are there any other smart device(s) that either monitor, control or manage water in the home that is gaining traction? What's the need for them?

I don't know specifics, but a lot of the major manufactuers are working on this.  Products like the "tankless" hot water heater save energy and water, for example. 

Submitting early so I don't forget! I have several pieces of broken or cracked china and ceramics. I live in Columbia. Where in the Baltimore/Washington area can I have them repaired? They are mostly of sentimental value, although one piece of Royal Worcester china needs gold trim repaired. Any suggestions are greatly appreciated. Thank you. Love your chats!

Yes. Try Nonomura Studios, 3432 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington 202 363-4025.

Not home related, but might be of help. We put my parents-in-law (in their 80s) on our cell phone plan and got them the same phone that we have. This way we can help solve problems if they get stuck using it.

Understanding how to help your parents with technology is great.  Knowing how to use the appliances in their home can be incredibly helpful.  My husband is on speed dial for his mom when it comes to her house!

Good morning! My husband and I are drowning in taupe paint chips and samples. Now, we are beyond being able to make a choice for the exterior of our house; we need your help!

I like Benjamin Moore Nantucket Gray and Sherwin Williams Truly Taupe.

My parents in their late 80s have the most difficulty remembering to take their medications. We have instituted a meds dispenser on the table policy to remind them. Other than having an in person meds police, any other hints?

This is a problem that caregivers worry about - some have manage as many as 18 meds for their parents!  Start by getting advice from from your parents' medical team.  There are devices for medication management out there.  Some alert you if your parents haven't taken their meds by a certain time by calling your phone, for example.  We may have some information on our caregiving resource center: and you could even enter the chat room there and see what other people in your situation have done.

In addressing the aging communities, I find there to be huge resistance to "change". How do you suggest we handle such fear with those who'd like to remain in their communities, while density is increasing and development is now imperative?

Well, we do know most people want to stay in their homes, or their communities if possible.  Including residents in the conversation is key.  Helping people understand how the changes - things like wider sidewalks - will make their lives better works for us.  We all need to pay attention to how we're going to get around when we no longer drive, whether we can we walk to places we need, and how our houses are going to work for us for the long term.  It's a conversation we need to have with our families early and often, because people's needs change over time. 

Don't tell your parents not to move into a house they like but the range is too heavy. They can always sell the range and buy something that is better for them to use. That's like saying you won't move into a home you love because you don't like the color of the paint.

Some advice...

I thought that the article on tech gadgets for making the home safer and easier for seniors was very interesting. However, I hope that you realize that most of the devices are beyond the reach of many, many seniors and that not all seniors have spare cash to spend on $3,000 refrigerators! Do you have any suggestions that would make living at home safer and easier for seniors that do NOT involve large outlays of cash? Thank you.

We all love looking at the luxury items for ideas, and we can hope that technology adoption is swift enough that the prices drop (think TVs).  But in the meantime - and the "real" world - here are a few options for lower-cost upgrades:


I have a crystal rose bowl that belonged to my grandmother. It has a chip in the rim; is this something that can be fixed? Any recommendations on where to take it? (NoVa is preferred.) Thanks much.

The place I know is in Potomac - Restoration Center at 301 340-2624 - does anyone know of a place in Northern Virginia.

I hate spa tubs. They are dangerous and difficult to get into and out of (I've slipped and done the splits on the tub edge). They also take up so much space!! Why are they seen as such a bonus in the shelter magazines and television shows? If I saw a spa tub in a house, it would immediately be unacceptable for purchase.

We're a bit flummoxed by that too, especially since most people take showers these days!  But you bring up a key point - a tub should have a nice wide lip, or edge to sit on so getting in and out is easier.  Or if you have the funds, rip out that tub and put in a step-free shower - there is probably plenty of room, right?

Currently, my parents are in their sixties and live in a three-level townhome that does not have a full bathroom or a bedroom on the main floor. I see them struggling with the stairs on a daily basis. They grip the side rail and go one step at a time, very slowly. On one hand, perhaps the stairs provide exercise benefits. But on the other hand, is there any way to gently suggest to them that the house no longer suits their needs?

Kudos to you for noticing this before it becomes a more serious issue.  Stairs can be tricky - a couple solutions that may work are motorized gliders that attach to them, or even see if there's room to install an elevator. It may sound expensive, but often these solutions are less costly than moving to a new home. 

In terms of talking to them about it, think "ask" vs. "tell."  See if they're already concerned - they may be, and you all could join forces to investigate the options together.

Any new ideas for repurposing the large Yankee candle jars, other than storing cotton balls or reusing them for candles? They're too nice to throw away. Many thanks!

What an interesting question. You could store makeup or  jewelry in them.  What about filling them with sand, putting in a votive candle and putting them outside lining your front walk or patio in the summer?

The wolf range was just one example of why the house wasn't for them. They wouldn't have actually been downsizing! I was merely trying to point out features that can be great for some people are not great for others.


Do you have recommendations for a blue paint color for a ceiling in a sunroom? One wall will be white. Other three walls are windows and doors (floor to ceiling). Thanks.

I would do a very, very pale blue. Sky High by Sherwin Williams is nice. So is Farrow & Ball Borrowed Light.

Given that seniors may be adverse to change, how does one get them to use new technology in their homes that may be a benefit to them? Like pre-setting the temperature for their shower..

Our research shows that older people will adopt new technologies as long as they help them stay independent.  I wouldn't automatically assume that seniors aren't willing to change.  They do need patient guidance at times, and that can be from family members, friends, or even via local technology classes.

How can I find the right contractor?

Follow the steps AARP outlines here:; check for trusted contractors, and ask friends for references.


Many occupational therapists are trained CAPS (Certified Aging-in-Place) professionals too. Builders and remodelers often work with OTs to ensure the designs they execute for their clients will be the most comfortable and ergonomic.  Learn more about occupational therapists at

My pet peeve re: retirement homes is that most of them are located on busy streets with no stoplight at the entrance. Also, many of them provide no covered parking for the residents. Most people continue to drive as long as they are mobile so this may be a reason they want to stay in their house. The problem has not been addressed in my community.

We agree that street safety is a big challenge, and we're fighting for safer streets for everyone.  One of the policies AARP supports is called, "complete streets," which includes design principles that make streets safer for all modes of transportation, even pedestrians.  You shouldn't feel like you're risking your life just to cross the street.

One more note - try a website called to report that dangerous location.

I had a spa tub in the master bathroom of my condo. I also cannot stand those tubs. I had it removed and put a wonderfully large linen and storage closet in its place. It was an easy and quite inexpensive fix and provided so much more storage in an otherwise small condo. It also enabled me to widen the shower a bit.

Terrific idea!

Since the trend is for seniors to stay in their home, what do you see as possibly the one major smart design item that will be most beneficial to them that is not available yet?

We're just starting to hear about things like refrigerators that will be able to sense when you're low on milk for example, and can send that information to you.  How great would that be for a family member looking after a loved one?  Along those lines, the monitoring systems that alert you if your mom hasn't been up and around the house per her normal routine are coming too. 

It's possible to get stick-on material that glows in the dark after the lights are on all day. Might be an option too.

Great idea. Thanks.

My house has recessed lighting in Family room, and covered overhead lights in hallways. The new lightbulbs, which have been mandated,, cannot be used in enclosed lighting. I have hoarded the standard bulbs for a few years because I cannot afford to rewire the entire house. Also, any ideas for hiring someone to change ceiling light bulbs? I usually wait until a tall relative is visiting but he only comes once a year.

That's frustrating.  I know that there are new lightbulbs constantly coming onto the market, so I'd check again if you haven't in a while.  I'm impressed by LED lighting in particular - they come in all sorts of light "colors" that are softer than teh original harsh CFC lights, and they last for upwards of 20 years, so you don't have to rely on those relatives or hire a handyman to come change a bulb for you!  You may want to talk to an electrician to see how expensive changing those fixtures would be.

Good Morning - The red paint on my front door is peeling. I'm guessing it is because the previous owner used interior paint on the exterior. The white paint on the door frame is also peeling. Anyway, it's getting to the point where we can no longer ignore the problem. My husband just wants to buy a new door (which is original to the 1940 house). I think it's crazy to spend so much when we could repaint. What do you recommend for quality exterior paint? I do not want to have to deal with this issue again in 2 years.

No! Please do not get rid of a fabulous 1940s door. The doors then were made with much more care and craftsmanship and style. Get a good painter to scrape and sand and patch your door and put a great coat of exterior paint on it. I have been told that Sherwin Williams Duration is a great choice for exterior durability and longevity.

This is a question that I struggle with.

Age is a state of mind, right???  That's why so many of the suggestions we recommend are honestly simply good design principles that make your house safer and easier to use.  That's good for people of ALL ages!  And the good news is, so many of the products we mentioned look great, and you'd never know they're "senior-friendly."

What's the best way to illuminate a front walk?

Flood lights are great, and many can be put on a timer.  Sometimes they create shadows, so the solution depends on your walkway design.  There are other options like solar path lighting that stake in the ground - these can be relatively inexpensive options.

For way less than $100, you can get a telescoping pole with a gripping device to remove those high bulbs. No ladders, no handymen. Shop online and you'll pay around $50.

This could work.

This would depend on size (and if they have lids), but perhaps you can use them in your pantry or kitchen for grains (rice, pasta), tea bags, herbs/spices, matches, etc.

We learned a lot from this chat. Thanks so much for being with us today, Amy. Check out our entire tech package today in Local Living. Lots of good tech updates for parents, kids, seniors and others. See you next week.

Thanks so much for having me!  This has been a lot of fun, and I'm glad there are so many forward-thinking readers out there.  Keep planning, everyone!

In This Chat
Amy Levner
Amy Levner is responsible for AARP's work on promoting the features that make communities great places to live for everyone: good home design, expanding transportation options, and ensuring access to the services we all need in our daily lives.
Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering, organizing and DC retail.

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