According to the 2022 University of Michigan National Survey on Healthy Aging, the majority of older Americans — 88 percent — want to live in their own homes as long as possible. If this sounds like you, you need to consider how safely you can navigate your environment, and especially the kitchen, as this is one of the biggest determinants of living at home as you get older.
“There can be all kinds of increased hazards in the kitchen, including a higher risk of falls and burns,” says Priscilla Flores, OTD, MSOTR/L, CDP, an occupational therapist at the Cleveland Clinic’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas. But of course, the kitchen is essential to living at home. “It’s so important that people can continue to cook healthy, nutritious meals as they age,” says Flores.
Here are nine easy kitchen updates and modifications that will keep you cooking for decades.
“It’s very important to turn on the lights,” says Flores. “It’s easy enough to walk into the kitchen only to turn on the stove and slip and fall.”
In fact, an October 2021 study published in the American Journal of Ophthalmology found that better home lighting was associated with fewer falls among older adults. You don’t have to do any fancy upgrades, either: It can be as simple as making sure all the overhead lights are on when it gets dark, Flores adds.
However, do not add floor lamps. “You don’t want cords around that you can trip over,” she says.
One option is to simply increase the power of the ceiling fixtures, says Elaine Schgold Davis, an occupational therapist and coordinator of the American Occupational Therapy Association’s Older Drivers Initiative.
LED lights are a good option because they provide bright, clean light at a fraction of the energy consumption of traditional lights. Cabinet lighting can also help illuminate areas so you can see what you’re cutting or cooking (and reduce the risk of cutting or burning yourself).
If you or a loved one has arthritis, it can be difficult to lift heavy pots and pans. To make cooking less of a chore (and more of something you enjoy), switch to something lighter, like aluminum pans.
“There’s no need to buy a whole new set: I usually recommend that people examine their pots and pans and pick up a couple of lighter ones to use in everyday cooking,” says Schold Davis. The rest you can give to your children or donate. “That way, you’ve gotten rid of the excess and you can just store the items you need in one drawer,” she explains.
Use pots and pans with two handles so you can distribute your weight more evenly in both hands, such as Tramontina cookware, which has an assist handle, according to the Arthritis Foundation.
Now is the time to ask yourself: do you really need three different sets of plates? What about all those kitchen gadgets covered in dust sitting in the cupboards next to your microwave? Invite a friend or loved one over the course of several days or even weeks to go through your kitchen and decide what to keep, throw away, and gift or donate.
“A good rule of thumb is if you haven’t used it in three months, get rid of it,” says Schold Davis.
While you’re at it, clear the counters too for more work space. If you don’t use that coffee maker, blender, or toaster oven, consider getting rid of it.
Once you’ve cut out your kitchen items, figure out where to put everything so it’s within reach and you’ll remember where they are.
“Put all frequently used items either on the bottom shelves of your closet or in drawers that you can easily access,” says Schold Davis. “You want to minimize reaching and bending while still making the things you use frequently comfortable and accessible.”
Throwing away carpets and rugs is a hazard. According to a January 2013 analysis of data from hospital emergency rooms over a seven-year period, emergency rooms in the United States treated nearly 38,000 adults over the age of 65 each year.Journal of Trauma and Violence Research.
“You’re much better off removing them and replacing them with a kitchen mat that sticks to the floor,” says Schold Davis. “They’re a lot easier on the knees when you’re standing there chopping vegetables or washing dishes.”
According to New York-Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center, thousands of older adults are burned each year by fire, warm liquids or contact with hot objects. “As you get older, it’s harder to get rid of the damage quickly, and the skin gets thinner, which makes it more prone to injury,” says Flores.
According to New York Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center, some ways to protect yourself include:
- When cooking on the stove, turn pot handles.
- Use a pot lid to prevent fat from spilling out.
- Cook on the back burners of the stove.
- When using the microwave, use microwave-safe containers with lids to allow steam to escape.
- Never leave food unattended while cooking on the stove. Set a timer to turn it off when needed.
- When cooking, wear short-sleeved or tight-fitting clothing and keep items such as paper towels away from the stovetop that can burn.
- Use oven mitts and pot holders when cooking.
As you age, it’s important to eat plenty of fresh, healthy foods. But chopping fruits and vegetables can be time-consuming, says Schold Davis. She recommends separating the steps between washing, chopping and cooking.
“You don’t have to do everything at once — wash the produce in the morning, let it sit in a colander to dry, chop in the afternoon, then cook in the early evening,” says Schold Davis.
If you have a lot to do, use a food processor, advises Schold Davis. She also recommends using chainmail or cut-resistant gloves ($14.95, Williams Sonoma) to reduce the risk of cuts.
8. Invest in the right kitchen equipment
If you have arthritic hands, you can get extra help. According to the Arthritis Foundation, you can try the following:
- Bagel or English muffin slices
- Magnetic measuring cups and spoons
- Suction cup cheese grater
- Garlic Mincer ($14.99, Amazon) for finely slicing garlic
But there are other larger items that can be useful. Schold Davis recommends:
- A high chair with a back that you can sit on while preparing a meal such as chop vegetables.
- A cart that you can use to move things instead of carrying them.
- For food preparation, such as spatulas, use products with large rubber handles that are easier to grip.
- The slow cooker: This makes cooking easy because you can just throw items in and forget about them until they’re ready, says Schold Davis.
- Electric can and jar openers. They’re easier for many older adults who may have lost finger dexterity, and they can also help conserve energy, Flores says.
You can’t cook if you struggle to get to the grocery store, says Schold Davis. Consider home delivery or pick-up services so you don’t have to waste energy in the store.
Buy pre-cut fruits and vegetables and have the butcher cut the meat for you.
Schold Davis also recommends making twice as much as usual, then freezing half and eating later in the week.