4 Tips for Accessible Kitchen Design in Senior Housing Communities

4 Tips for Accessible Kitchen Design in Senior Housing Communities

A lot of thought and planning goes into every kitchen we design. The stakes are especially high in multifamily communities, where the final vision is sometimes replicated across hundreds of units.

Senior housing communities, in particular, call for designs that account for different acuity levels, especially in developments that combine independent living, assisted living and memory care. Even if these properties offer meal service in shared dining rooms and bistros, they usually include demonstration kitchens that can be used for group cooking or baking classes, as well as private kitchens or kitchenettes in individual residences. In all cases, they must be accessible, economical and, yes, beautiful too. They also need to comply with the design standards set forth in the Americans with Disabilities Act, Fair Housing Act and applicable state and local building codes. 

As designers, our goal is to create spaces that check all the boxes for their occupants. In the case of senior housing, where kitchens serve as a familiar, home-like gathering area for residents, a few simple modifications can result in a design with universal appeal:

Reduced-Height Cabinets

When creating a kitchen in a senior community, designers need to consider that older adults might not be able to reach a standard-height countertop for meal preparation or even just to lean on if they need extra support. 

Standard base cabinets, installed on the floor, generally come from the factory at about 34½ inches high. With the countertop, these cabinets top out at about 36 inches. But that’s too high for someone in a wheelchair. According to the ADA, base cabinets should ideally be 32 inches high, but no higher than 34 inches. As a result, these cabinets need to be custom-ordered from the manufacturer.  

ADA rules also require a toe kick at the bottom of the base cabinets to accommodate the footrest of a wheelchair. 

Incorporating pull-out drawers in the base cabinets makes it easier for residents to reach dishware, cookware and other accessories stored inside. All of this helps foster a sense of independence among older adults.

Easy-To-Use Hardware

When selecting hardware for cabinetry, look for options that are large and easy to grab. Round knobs can be difficult for arthritic hands. Flat or cup pulls or lever-style handles are much easier to hold onto and use.  

With hardware, it’s important to consider not only shape but also color – and not just for the aesthetic value. Choosing hardware that contrasts with cabinetry makes it easier for visually impaired seniors to see. Possible combinations include black hardware on stained wood cabinetry, or a matte nickel on white Shaker cabinets. 

Make sure you also brighten up the kitchen with additional lighting or more efficient bulbs. By age 60, eyes need three times more light to see than they did at age 20. Installing under-cabinet and task lighting helps to illuminate storage and work areas that might otherwise be too dark. 

Accessible Storage

When designing traditional apartments, we try to include a closet-like pantry for food storage when space permits. But in senior housing, we tend to use a pantry cabinet instead. That’s because older residents may find it easier to reach into these shallower cabinets to grab boxed or canned goods. 

Incorporating a Lazy Susan, organizer drawers or sliding shelves in a cabinet pantry can also make items easier to reach.

Movable Islands

Kitchen islands provide both additional counter space – a real treat for seniors who love to cook – and storage space. But while they are highly functional, they also take up a lot of room and can challenge the mobility of older adults using a cane or wheelchair. So, consider a movable island or cart instead, especially in smaller kitchens.

Movable islands or carts, both of which can be put on castors, provide more floor space in a kitchen, as well as flexibility and convenience. They can be easily moved out of the way if a resident is using a wheelchair, and once the island or cart is repositioned, castors can be locked in place to ensure safe use.

These are just a few of the design principles that can be incorporated into senior housing communities to make the activities of daily living easier for residents. If you’re interested in exploring how to adapt kitchens in new or existing senior communities, contact me at 312-266-2341.

Jane Kelly
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