Table of Contents
by Leslie Farin
Creating an age in place kitchen…
We recently made the decision to remain in the home where we raised our family. The house is two stories with lots of steps, and probably too big for the two of us with the kids now on their own. The master bedroom, however, is on the first floor, so we can make it work. The problem is that the house needs renovations, especially in the kitchen if we are to age in place comfortably. We do not need these modifications now, but who knows when we might? Might as well make the changes during this renovation and not incur additional expenses later.
Why renovate instead of moving?
Lots of reasons, actually.
First, our children still love coming home to their old bedrooms. Both my folks and my husband’s still live in our childhood homes, so we understand their attachment.
Second, we love our neighborhood and our neighbors, many of whom moved in when we did all those years ago. We enjoy seeing people of all ages walking around the cul-de-sac, which is one of the reasons we do not want to live in a 55+ community. The neighborhood school is within walking distance, which means we hear the laughter of children all around after school and on the weekends.
Finally, the housing market is crazy right now. Though we would do very well financially if we sold our home, the new place would also have a high price tag. Renovations cost less than a new house and this way we can get exactly what we want.
The kitchen renovation
The first step was to carefully assess our current kitchen to identify problem areas needing modification. We made a list of the changes necessary to comfortably age in place. We then made another list of cosmetic changes. As long as we were renovating, it made sense to get rid of all the browns from the 1990’s and bring in a lighter and brighter look. I spend a lot of time in my kitchen and wanted to make it into a room that brings me joy.
The goal was to find a way to create a beautifully updated kitchen to best meet our needs, and some of our wants, moving forward – and stay within our budget.
Below are some of the solutions we implemented. Every situation is different and people do not always have the same priorities, but these were the modifications that worked for us. I hope this information is helpful to others.
Drawers, not doors
You can see in the photo below I had a lot of lower cabinets. I had to get down on my knees to find anything in the back of them, which was awkward and uncomfortable. I prefer drawers because they display all the contents at once when you open the drawer which allows for easy grabbing. Larger items like pots and pans fit nicely in drawers, which makes me really happy. Drawers were definitely a “need” for my renovated kitchen.
As my original cabinets were in excellent shape and made from very good quality wood, I asked the contractors I interviewed if we could reconfigure the old ones to accommodate drawers instead of doors. The first two said no. Instead, they gave me astronomical quotes which included all new cabinets, top and bottom. They did not even consider trying to save any of them. The third contractor agreed that the cabinets were too high quality to trash and said he could reconfigure them to allow for drawers. Happily, his quote was much more reasonable than the first two. After checking references and looking at samples of his work, we decided to move forward.
The kitchen before renovating…
The kitchen after renovating with the cabinets along the back wall converted to drawers…
Accessible and safe appliances
The too-high microwave and too low bottom oven
Our microwave looked nice located on top of our double oven in the space-saving design of our old kitchen. However, as I am 5’2″ tall, I could not reach it without a stool. Think about that…for 26 years I could not easily open or close my microwave. Taking hot and sometimes heavy dishes down from above my head was not safe. I lived with it for a lot of years, but my balance is not as good now as when I was younger. It was time to make a change. We removed the old microwave from above the oven and installed a microwave drawer in our kitchen island. It sits below the countertop and opens and closes the same way any other drawer does. You place your food into the drawer to cook, then lift up your dish to take it out when done. Not needing to bend down anymore to open a microwave door is both good for my back and a much safer option than a microwave housed over the double oven.
You might not know the cost of a microwave drawer vs a countertop or built-in unit is significant. The drawer can run approximately $1000 higher. For this reason, we took a lot of time making our decision about this appliance. We brainstormed with the contractor to find another location where we could build in a regular microwave oven, but there was absolutely nowhere it fit in our kitchen without interfering with some other essential function. We could simply place it on a counter, but I don’t like the way that looks and did not want to give up the counter space. Ultimately, we decided the drawer in the island was the best option for us. We then revisited some of our decisions related to cosmetic changes to stay within our budget.
Now that we’ve used the microwave drawer for over a month, I can tell you we would make the same decision again in a heartbeat. Worth every penny! It’s great not to have to take hot dishes out of the microwave from over my head, and equally wonderful not to have to bend down to use this appliance.
As for the oven that was too low to use comfortably, we moved the double oven unit up 14 inches in its cabinet once we relocated the microwave to the island. Not only are both ovens now much easier to use, but we also have a new drawer at the bottom More storage is always a good thing!
We carefully evaluated what type of cooktop would be best to use in our newly renovated kitchen. Our original kitchen came with an electric oven located located on the island, right in the middle of the kitchen. Ideally, we wanted to move it against the back wall for a number of reasons.
One of the problems with the electric cooktop in the island is that it stayed hot for a long while after turning it off. We frequently walked by it, touched it without thinking, and got burned. Relocating the cooktop would basically eliminate this issue. In addition, moving it would leave the entire island countertop available as workspace, and I desperately wanted that extra space. Finally, cooktops in the island require a built in downdraft, which are difficult to find. They are also expensive, though you save money by not needing a hood and venting system to the outside.
Ultimately we did not relocate the cooktop. We found out that moving it was a much bigger job and expense than we realized.
While researching new units, we came across induction cooktops. We learned that induction is much more energy efficient than other types of cooktops. And while they do get warm, they do not generally stay hot enough to burn. The heat dissipates quickly once the burner is shut off. In addition, if you remove your pot, the heat turns off automatically. This induction cooktop seemed like a great option with its built in safety features.
Here’s how it works. An induction burner consists of a coil of copper wire that sits below the ceramic-glass cooktop surface. When turned on, forcing electricity through the coil, it creates an electromagnetic field that works with the metal cookware placed on top of the burner. In other words, the pot gets hot, and the cooktop surface not so much. (Note: This type of cooktop requires special magnetic metal pans, which are widely available.) Note that there is a safety light to indicate that the burner is still warm.
After a great deal of time and effort locating and reviewing the few models available with a downdraft that worked for our kitchen, we purchased the Elica Nikolatesla Switch induction cooktop. It turned out to be a good choice as we absolutely love our new cooktop.
Coming from an electric cooktop, there is a learning curve, but the benefits are many. In addition to less risk for burns or fires, the features include quick and efficient heating. Water boils much more quickly than with an electric cooktop, which is great for impatient people like me. We also love the sleek appearance and flat top; the touch pad eliminates the need for knobs and the level cooktop allows for easy transferring between burners.
We purchased a silicone mat on Amazon to cover the unit so we can use the area as extra work space. The new induction cooktop provided good solutions for all of our concerns.
After…induction cooktop (Elica Nikolatesla Switch induction cooktop)
What type of floor is best to age in place?
It’s important to choose materials that best reduce your chances of falling. Any floor can get slick when there’s a spill, but some types of flooring are better than others.
Porcelain tile is a good choice as long as it has enough grout and texture to grip your feet. It also absorbs less moisture than ceramic tile and is easy to maintain and clean. We had high quality rectangular porcelain tile in our kitchen that was in good shape and coordinated well with our new colors, so we decided to keep it. The downside of keeping the 10 year old floor is that the grout lines were very dark instead of the original cream color that matched the tile, which we did not like. The contractor recommended we reach out to a grout cleaner, a profession we did not know existed. We found one nearby, Cornerstone Chemdry; within three hours, the grout expert completely restored both the tile and grout to their original colors for a fraction of the cost of a new floor! Cornerstone is only in Texas, but if you need this service, it seems these businesses are available throughout the U.S. Good to know, right?
Another good choice, is laminate wood-look flooring which is durable and beautiful. The better laminate planks are also water resistant. This product comes with a pad underneath so it’s softer on your feet and more comfortable to stand on than other floors. Most people love the affordability of laminate compared to engineered or custom wood floors and the realistic look.
Luxury vinyl flooring
According to Joe Kboudi, flooring expert at SmithCo Flooring, the fastest selling flooring option right now is the new luxury vinyl planks made to look like wood. Not only is it less expensive than any other type of flooring, but like laminate, it comes with padding, offers good slip resistance and is very durable. When I looked at vinyl flooring a few years ago for a room in my house, I didn’t like it much, but Joe told me the designs have come a long way. Vinyl used to only be available in dark colors and it looked cheap (like vinyl!) compared to the wood laminates available which looked much more like real wood floors . Fast forward to 2022, and the new vinyl floors are much better. Manufacturers offer a variety of light and dark colors that look much more like real wood. Sounds like vinyl floors are worth revisiting when I renovate my bathroom.
Two more quick tips when renovating your kitchen to age in place
Locate the sink close to the stove
Many of us find our arms and backs weaken as we age and it’s harder to carry big pots full of water to and from the cooktop. Also, if spills happen on the way, you create a slipping hazard. So, ideally, make sure to locate your sink close to the stove, leaving counter workspace in between. Our sink is not on the same side as the cooktop, but it is only a step or two away on the counter directly across from it, which still works well for us.
Allow for Clearance Space
You want to have enough room to comfortably pass in a walkway and allow access to drawers and doors. You may also need to accommodate a wheelchair at some point. If possible, l recommend you leave 36 inches of clearance space. Our home allows for this amount of space, but many older homes do not. You may want to reconfigure your kitchen cabinets if you do not. Changing out old appliances for standard counter-depth ones are another way to add more clearance space.
The bottom line
Considering the importance of a kitchen and how much time we spend in it, it’s surprising to me that only 20% of those considering an aging in place remodeling prioritize the kitchen. The kitchen is a room that can be dangerous if left unmodified.
Perhaps people don’t want to think about their possible future accessibility needs. I get it. Or it could be that they think an age in place kitchen will look institutional. The truth is, if done well, making changes to age comfortably will simply look like a beautiful upgrade. No one needs to know that some of the modifications were done to make the kitchen more accessible and functional…so why not? It just makes sense if you plan to stay in your home long term. That way, when the time comes, you won’t have the added expense of needing to renovate again.