Designer Rhonda Moscoe speaks with homeowner Kathleen, seated at a table set with tea and flowers in her renovated living roomDesigner Rhonda Moscoe confers with her client. (Photos: Christie Vuong)

How A 78-Year-Old Renovated Her Home To Age In Place

The challenge: consolidating three floors into a fully accessible one-level living space.

When Kathleen, 78, purchased her three-story Toronto home in the 1970s, she always imagined growing old there. As a busy academic, she loved the location and third-floor office. After retirement, she enjoyed walking through her vibrant community and chatting with neighbours. As the years passed, she appreciated having her medical specialists close by and knowing which restaurants were welcoming to seniors.

But with age came reduced mobility, and Kathleen—who requested to be identified by only her middle name—found the layout of the house increasingly hard to navigate, especially at night. Her home has three sets of stairs, a bedroom on the third floor and the closest bathroom on the second; in recent years she’d been sleeping in the main-floor dining room to access a washroom. But the dining room was uninsulated and the bathroom on that floor hadn’t been renovated since the ’70s. Getting in and out of the tub also posed a challenge. “The older you get, the harder it is,” says Kathleen. “In fact, I don't think tubs are safe for older people.”

White cabinets leading to an open doorway that opens onto a stacked washer and dryer and then another door with a desk chair in front of a window Moscoe made all new doorways 36 inches wide to accommodate a possible future walker. (Photo: Christie Vuong)

Nearly 100 percent of Canadians 65 and older want to remain at home for as long as possible, according to a post-pandemic study by the National Institute on Aging. But, says Dr. Samir Sinha, the director of geriatrics at Sinai Health and the University Health Network, it’s not as simple as aging in place. What’s key is aging in the right place.

Ill-equipped homes can be one of the biggest barriers to independent living. Sinha cites falls as the leading cause of injury and hospitalization for Canadians 65+. Sadly, such preventable accidents often land seniors in nursing or retirement homes prematurely.

One part of Sinha's job is to identify types of equipment or small renovations that let his patients live out their remaining years at home. “The principle of universal design is that whatever your physical limitations, you can still access one hundred percent of your home. ‘No matter how old I am, or whatever happens to me, my home will always be able to be my home',” he says.

A desk and blue chair in front of a window in the house's back office Moscoe converted an unheated shed at the back of the house into a beautiful office. (Photo: Christie Vuong)

Kathleen’s set-up was inefficient at best. On top of her temporary bedroom, she was working out of a makeshift office on the ground floor. The majority of her files, though, remained in her third-floor office, making them inaccessible. And because the second floor had a functional kitchen while one on the main floor hadn’t worked in years, Kathleen still did all her cooking upstairs. Her laundry was up there, too.

But while she was anxious about the future, Kathleen was adamant about staying out of long-term care. She considered downsizing to an apartment but couldn’t fathom not walking outside whenever she pleased. “In the spring, this neighbourhood just comes alive,” she says, “And everyone is out, and you can't walk a block without it taking an hour.” Sinha couldn’t agree more. “So much of our health and well-being is about being able to interact with our neighbours and friends,” he reports.

In 2019, Kathleen hired Rhonda Moscoe of Rhonda Moscoe Interior Design for a small project. (Full disclosure: my sister works for Moscoe.) Moscoe quickly saw that Kathleen’s living situation was untenable and that her client was having a hard time. “I said, ‘your bedroom’s on the main floor with this old bathroom, with an old kitchen, but you're using your kitchen upstairs. Do you want to consider maybe bringing it together?”

A hallway with a stacked washer and dryer Creating a laundry room on the first floor keeps everything within easy reach. (Photo: Christie Vuong)

Moscoe pitched Kathleen on consolidating three floors of living space into a fully accessible one-bedroom apartment on the main floor. The redesign would include garden access via new French doors off the kitchen. “As soon as I said that, she was sold,” says Moscoe. Kathleen concurs. ”Ever since I've owned this house, I’ve fantasized about having a door that goes out onto a little deck.”

Designing a fully accessible space

Kathleen’s one non-negotiable was a bedroom with a bathroom. Moscoe was also determined to give her a proper study, and to get her exercise bike out of the living room and into the basement. The result is a single-story abode that flows intuitively from one room to the next. The designer reordered the rooms, moving the kitchen to the living-dining room and relocating the bedroom to the kitchen within reach of the washroom. In the dining room, she knocked down a portion of the wall to create a seamless walk-out to the garden.

To create more storage, Moscoe installed wall-to-wall closets in the bedroom, making them lower for easier access. She replaced the tub with an easy-entry shower in the adjoining bathroom, but stopped short of a flat entry. “The inspector wouldn’t let us cut the joists because it’s a very old house, so we made it as low as it can go,” she says. And she strategically positioned grab bars on the walls. “I got into the shower, and we placed them,” says Kathleen, “That was really important.” There’s also a movable stool and niches to keep toiletries within easy reach. A two-headed shower adds a touch of luxury.

Pocket doors opening onto a bedroom Pocket doors save space and add beauty and privacy. (Photo: Christie Vuong)

Doorknobs can be difficult to open as we age, so Moscoe changed all the knobs in the apartment to levers. She made new doorways 36 inches wide to accommodate a possible future walker or wheelchair and went without an island in the kitchen for the same reason. “My job is to ‘forward think’ and incorporate design concepts to help clients stay in their homes longer,” she says.

It can be delicate terrain. “We don’t see ourselves getting old,” says Moscoe, “We see ourselves as we are now.” She reminds clients who are 50+ that small changes like widening doorways and reinforcing walls are worthwhile and don’t change the design itself. “I say ‘Let's do it now, in your late 60s, early 70s, so that when you're 80, it's already in place.” Sinha agrees. “It’s never too early to think about incorporating aging in place design,” he says. “Waiting until you’re already old is often too late.” Kathleen puts it more bluntly: “Who wants to be cleaning out your house and moving at age 80?”

The staircase in the front hallway hadn't been adjusted since the 1960s and was falling in. So Moscoe built it up and added a stair lift. The lift was a no-brainer for Kathleen. “It's very easy to use,” she says. So far, she hasn’t needed it, but it came in handy on a recent visit from her brother. “He had a heavy suitcase. I said, ‘Don't carry those up the stairs. We'll just put them on the lift—and up they went.'” Still, she acknowledges, “My brother's 80. More and more, my guests are going to be 80, so they'll need it.”

A view of the built-in wall closets in the bedroom The designer installed wall-to-wall closets in the bedroom and made them lower for easier access. (Photo: Christie Vuong)
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The top two floors are a self-contained apartment. Moscoe closed off the front hallway with an eye to renting to a grad student and a possible future caregiver. “We’ve divided it, so she has privacy,” she says. The setup got a trial run after Kathleen had knee replacement surgery a few years ago. Her trainer temporarily offered to move into the apartment to help her recuperate and stayed on the second floor. “It was an example of the plan working perfectly,” she says, “For a caregiver to be there and for me to be here. It's just perfect.”

To fit 78 years of living onto a single floor, Moscoe used every nook and cranny. She found an unheated shed-like room at the back of the house used to store gardening tools. “I said, ‘what if we make a floor and open the window here and make this a back office? And she said, “—Oh!” I gave her all these possibilities she had never even thought of.” Now Kathleen can look outside while she works. “It's cozy and warm and just feels good,” she says of the study.

Preserving artistic integrity

When Moscoe stripped down the old ceiling in both the front hall and office, she made a happy discovery: “There was more room than we thought,” she says. She also found architectural details covered up during the last renovation, completed before Kathleen purchased the house. Both rooms had drab drop ceilings that the designer restored to their natural, historical integrity. In the office, she uncovered hidden beams that she re-refinished and exposed to beautiful effect.

A detail of a bed with a white bedspread on it and a pink throw pillow and a window with a lilac curtain Having a bathroom off the bedroom is valuable for seniors with mobility issues. (Photo: Christie Vuong)

Moscoe painstakingly replicated all the crown moulding throughout the apartment to match the original. And since Kathleen loved the etched-glass doors that had been removed in the dining room, Moscoe repurposed them by making safe-spacing “pocket doors” in the bedroom and laundry room. Mounted on a sliding track that disappears inside the wall when the door opens, the top-hung doors are perfect for tight spots.

After years of attending conferences abroad, Kathleen had amassed an impressive art collection, so Moscoe gathered it and incorporated it into the living room. “It was on three different levels,” she says, “And now all the art she loves is on one level. It’s all around her.”

Thriving in place

After spending years spread out over three floors, it feels good to be settled. “I've always had it in the back of my head that this could be a way to live,” says Kathleen. But as an older single woman, “I never pursued it because I didn't have anybody I trusted to do it.” Knowing the project would come in on schedule and on budget— especially at this stage in life—“made all the difference in the world,” she says.

the easy-entry shower with added grab bars and light blue tiled walls Moscoe replaced the tub with an easy-entry shower with added grab bars.(Photo: Christie Vuong)

On warm days she keeps her French doors open. And she spends hours on her deck. “I get to, in essence, sit in my garden very, very easily. Without even using stairs.”

Other than weekly workouts in the basement with her trainer, Kathleen stays on the main floor. In fact, Moscoe had been telling her all along that once the apartment was finished, she would find it big enough. “I kept saying no, no, no, I'll do dinner parties upstairs,” Kathleen recalls, “But then I moved all my dishes down here. And now my pots are down here too.” Her new arrangement means she can “easily seat six people around this table. And that's perfect for dinner.”

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As for what Kathleen loves most about her urban oasis? “Everything’s close,” she says without hesitation. “I'm always leaving my glasses someplace, and I don’t have to climb a set of stairs to find them,” she adds with a laugh “I don't have to deal with stairs at all.”

another angle of the kitchen, showing the stainless fridge and the white cabinets with built-in microwave No island in the kitchen means Kathleen can move freely through the space. (Photo: Christie Vuong)The staircase in the front hall with a stair lift and a blue runner carpet Moscoe built up the staircase in the front hallway and added a lift. (Photo: Christie Vuong)The living room with an open door into the front hall The front hallway can be completely closed off for possible renters or a caregiver. (Photo: Christie Vuong)Another angle of the living room, with a fireplace and coffee table Moscoe was committed to preserving the artistic integrity of the house.(Phots: Christie Vuong)A floral couch and behind it the kitchen with blue cabinets Double doors off the living room lead out to a private deck. (Photo: Christie Vuong)The light blue bathroom vanity with vanity mirror and marble floors The original bathroom hadn’t been renovated since the ’70s and had no storage. (Photo: Christie Vuong)the kitchen, with white countertops and a utensil jar and blue kettle The original design of the house was inefficient for someone with mobility issues. (Photo: Christie Vuong)