Designing Outdoor Living Areas for Seniors

By Fran J. Donegan, Deck Safety Expert

Just as the interiors of homes should be changed to fit the needs of seniors who wish to age in place and live independently, exterior spaces like patio and decks should be just as accommodating. The goal is to provide a safe environment for the senior to enjoy that can be navigated easily and does not require extensive maintenance.

The design of any outdoor area will depend on the amount of space available and the abilities of the person who will be living in the house. When planning a new design or making changes to an existing space, keep in mind that the senior’s needs may change in the future.

Safe Design

  • Provide access to the house. The ideal situation is for the door to the house and the deck or patio be on the same level. If the senior uses a wheelchair, a door without a raised threshold will make navigating easier, and the door must be wide enough to easily accommodate the chair. If there are steps, a ramp will be needed for wheelchair users. If the senior does not use a chair, be sure to include a handrail, even if there are only one or two steps. Doors should have lever handles because they are easier to operate than round knobs.

  • Create an open layout. Strive for a clutter-free design. Keep furniture groupings tight and provide wide aisles or open areas between activity spaces. Try to avoid placing anything that could be a tripping hazard, such as portable planters, in walkways and near stairs that lead down into the yard.

  • Highlight level changes. Decks that consist of multiple levels make for interesting designs, but level changes should be easy for seniors to see. You can call attention to a change by applying a contrasting color to the edge of the step that leads to another level. A slip-resistant coating applied to the edge of steps and level changes improves safety.

  • Light the area. There are a number of lighting fixtures that can create a safe and pleasant environment for decks and patios. Stair lights, either mounted underneath the steps or installed on the side of steps, provide a necessary safety element for seniors. Other light fixtures include post mounted lights for general lighting, wall-mounted fixtures that illuminate access to the house and low-voltage path lights that can define the outline of a ground-level patio or deck.

Convenient Design

  • Create easy-to-reach surfaces. If built-in planters are part of the design of the area, they should be at a height that is comfortable for the senior. The same holds true for bars and counters. Can the senior living there easily get into and out of high stools, or would a standard table make more sense?

  • Supply shade. People get the most use out of outdoor living spaces during warm weather, but hot, sunny spaces can be uncomfortable for some seniors. Add a permanent shade structure like a pergola or a retractable awning. Other options include temporary canopies that can be taken down at the end of the season and large umbrellas that provide shade to dining and seating areas.

  • Provide easy-to-move furniture. Because outdoor seating often gets moved around, it's best to include lightweight products in the mix. Furniture with aluminum, plastic polymer, wicker and certain types of steel frames are usually lightweight and easy to carry.

Low-Maintenance Design

Choose outdoor furniture that requires as little maintenance as possible. The cushions on outdoor furniture should be comfortable easy to clean. They should dry quickly, be stain resistant, resist mold and mildew and withstand exposure to the sun. Most outdoor furniture frames can be cleaned with soap and water, although wood and wrought iron do require a little more maintenance.

Masonry patio materials require very little maintenance—usually just an occasional hosing off. The same is true for low-maintenance composite deck materials. The term "composite materials" includes a wide variety of products that are made from different materials. Basically, it means anything that is not wood. Composite materials come in a number of colors and designs, and many look like real wood. But unlike real wood, they do not need periodic staining and sealing.

Providing an outdoor space that is safe and comfortable can enhance the quality of life for seniors and make the time they spend at their own home more enjoyable.
As a home improvement expert, Fran Donegan  writes for The Home Depot about topics like finding the right firmness on patio cushions and building a deck with safety features for seniors. Fran also is a longtime DIY author and has written several books, including Paint Your Home.
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