Obviously, no two people are identical, and each person is a little different in their physical size, abilities, and needs. That’s why we create individualized aging in place solutions rather than trying to find and to use some sort of a standardized approach.
As to how reach applies within the home, we're talking about someone's ability to locate, grasp, retrieve, operate and otherwise use objects and controls that are in front of, below, behind, next to, or above them - depending on whether they are seated or standing at the moment, as well as their height in relation to what they are trying to touch and use.
Because people come in many different heights, some people necessarily are going to have a higher reach than others. For some, even reaching the lowest shelf on an upper cabinet – typically 54” above the floor – is a challenge if not impossible. This would be true for smaller individuals whether seated or standing. For others, especially those somewhat tall, all of the shelves in an upper cabinet would be reachable while standing on the floor in front of it. This would only be accomplished by others by using a small ladder for assistance.
Physically, reach is extending our arms in the direction of something we want to grasp, hold onto, pick up, remove or retrieve, or use. This would apply to faucets, cabinet doors (and what's inside those cabinets once they are opened), drawers, doors, windows, switches, controls, clothing in our closets or dresser drawers, shoes, soap, toothbrush and toothpaste, food from the refrigerator or pantry, and similar items used in and around the home.
Reach is not an unlimited activity but one with very definite boundaries. It is defined by our height, the position we are in at the time (seated, standing, reclining, bending, squatting, or stretching), and the condition of our joints and muscles that allows us to extend our hands and arms in the direction of what we want to reach.
Injuries and age can have a large impact on our ability to reach. Limited range of motion (the reduced ability of a shoulder, wrist, knee, or ankle, for instance, to have full and complete rotation) means that a person cannot move or fully extend their arm, hand, or leg as much as they could at an earlier time in their life. It can also mean that the angle of reach has declined. No longer can someone extend their arm directly over their head so that it is pointing straight up. They might only be able to raise their arm to a position of 30-45 degrees from horizontal - or even less.
Having less ability to raise one's arm and to rotate the shoulder means that people can't reach upper cabinets or retrieve items from the back of drawers or shelves as easily as they once could. It might mean they can't do this at all.
For us as aging in place professionals, we need to understand that these physical changes happen - not all at once and not at any certain age - and that they affect how people can use their home and function well within it.
We must begin considering and factoring into our design solutions such aspects as the height of cabinets people can reach, the position of window cranks, how far someone has to reach to engage a control or switch (and what they must lean or stretch over to do so (such as a cabinet or countertop), where a handheld shower is located, and many other features in a home that typically are located where people with full extension of their arms and legs and complete range of motion can use effectively.
This will enable people of any ability to "reach" their full potential in their homes and to function well as they remain there and age in place.
Steve Hoffacker, CAPS, CEAC, SHSS, is a licensed Certified Aging In Place Specialist - Master Instructor and best-selling author of aging in place books. To learn about this and other programs for aging in place or universal design, visit stevehoffacker.com or call 561-685-5555. Also, check out the "Aging & Accessibility" groups on Facebook and LinkedIn.