This Oregon garden is designed for aging in place

As the mirror delights in telling me every morning, I’m not getting any younger.

But at least I have plenty of company.

By 2034, according to Danielle Arigoni, AARP’s director of livable communities (and a 1991 University of Oregon grad), there will be more people 65 and over than there are 18 and under for the first time in U.S. history.

Which is why aging in place — and how best to do it — is such a major issue now, one that will only become more important in the next several decades.

“It’s a massive demographic tipping point,” Arigoni says. A 2018 AARP survey found 75% of those 50 (what I call “those kids”) and over want to age in their own home, and the percentages grew even higher in older age groups.

Much has been written about what to do to make a residence’s interior best suited for homeowners as they age. (See AARP’s very informative — and very free — Home Fit guide.)

But less has been shared about how to make a private garden accessible as people age into their 70s, 80s and 90s. The American Society of Landscape Architects has addressed public spaces and gardens, but not private residences.

Which is where Jane Coombs, a retired landscape designer, comes in.

A few years ago, Jane and husband, Peter Dowse, knew it was time to move out of their beloved 1914 Craftsman in Sellwood. With stairs leading up to the entry, an upstairs master bedroom and a basement laundry room, the home was all the things aging-in-place experts don’t recommend.

So it was that they found themselves in a one-story house in Milwaukie and Jane, with 30-plus years of landscape design experience, had a 10,000-square-foot, relatively blank canvas to work with outdoors.

And in the process of designing her garden, she always kept in mind what would work best for her and her husband 10 years down the road.

“When I’m 90,” she explains, “I won’t be able to maintain the garden the way I can now.”

This thinking led Jane to incorporate aging-in-place design principles in her front and back gardens, many of which we’ve included in the tips.

They include flat, navigable surfaces for wheelchairs and walkers, a step-free entry from inside the house to the patio, easy-maintenance plants, plenty of seating and multiple hose bibs. A LOT of hose bibs. OK, eight, to be exact.


A very dear friend of mine from high school, Oklahoma State University assistant professor Emily Roberts, has her doctorate in environmental gerontology, a field that seeks to optimize the relationship between the elderly and their physical and social environment.

I learned from her that connection to the outdoors and nature can ease and prolong a person’s life, even if it’s just looking out the window from either a hospital bed or your own home. Having access physically or visually to nature is extremely beneficial to our well-being as we age.

The concept of biophilia, originally written about by the American biologist and naturalist E.O. Wilson, suggests we as humans innately possess a tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life.

Using that principle can help seniors thrive and stay independent and autonomous for as long as possible as they age in place.

Emily explained to me that it’s important to realize that whatever brought us pleasure throughout our lives doesn’t diminish as we age. Instead, it brings back good memories that we enjoy even more, along with a sense-of-place attachment, the feelings that we hold for places and things that mean a lot and serve as reminders of the past.

So if you enjoyed your garden or nature when you were younger, it might be even more important as a way to stay healthy physically and emotionally as you age.

Gardens can be very therapeutic for us as we get older, so having safe access to them for as long as possible is important.

As I age, I know I will want to be gardening for as long as I can. It has always grounded me and brought me great pleasure. If I have one addiction, it’s gardening.

Biophilia … I’m a card-carrying, certified biophiliac!

I would add that not only is it important to connect to the garden as we age, but for any of the same reasons it can help us deal with the COVID-19 crisis, fires, protests and election craziness that seem to be overwhelming us at times.

Biophilia, indeed!

Tips for making gardens comfortable for older adults

Instead of annuals and high-maintenance types of perennials, opt for low-maintenance trees, shrubs and native plants. Alternatively, there are many low-maintenance and well-behaved perennials and shrubs to still choose from that are beautiful. Also, dwarf plants can minimize pruning.

Ask yourself what you can handle comfortably and still enjoy gardening. Keep the plants you love and re-home the rest.

Consider getting rid of your lawn and installing artificial turf. Or turn your lawn into narrow, four-foot wide beds for ease of access from either side.

A water feature can add soothing sounds while also attracting birds and insects for entertainment. Studies show that these types of interactions can promote a sense of well-being.

Get a garden service to do the major cleanup (Dennis: Can I get an “amen?”) or hire a garden helper to assist you when needed.

Keep your tools sharp and oiled and they will be easier to use. Buy tools in bright colors so they are easier to spot, with foam handles and grips for comfort. For instance, there are handles that make wheelbarrows much, much easier to grip and turn. In addition, a wheeled garden caddy or cart with a seat can make navigating the garden much easier.

Consider what you’ll see from inside your house looking out. You want your garden — and that view — to be beautiful year-round. Studies suggest access to a garden physically or visually can improve mood and ease depression.

Lighting, lighting, lighting. Did we mention lighting? Make sure all pathways, especially to the front door, are well lit. And don’t forget any entertaining, seating or cooking areas, as well as garbage can storage and garage access, too.

Have plenty of shade for comfort, whether it’s from trees or built-in shade structures.

Consider avoiding elevation and grade changes throughout your garden. Level and flat is best, or a gentle ramping incline, if necessary.

Simple, level concrete walkways that are wide enough to accommodate two people side-by-side, a scooter or a wheelchair in high-traffic areas are the best choice. Mulch and loose gravel paths can be hard to push a walker through.

Avoid steps, including any from the inside to the outside of the house. A patio or deck can be built at almost the same level as the threshold of the door. In the rest of the garden, consider a gentle ramp instead of stairs or, if you can’t avoid stairs, make sure there are handrails on both sides.

Installing multiple hose bibs eliminates having to lug around heavy hoses.

Automatic and drip irrigation for the entire garden, including veggies, pots and hanging baskets make it possible, with a high-tech control box, to water with a couple of clicks on your cellphone (Dennis: Of course, how to work the phone is another issue entirely).

Don’t forget art in the garden. It can be soothing and bring pleasure.

Provide lots of comfortable and accessible seating throughout the garden. Whether it’s an outdoor upholstered sectional sofa, chairs with a dining table, benches throughout the garden, a simple wood lip at seat height to sit on around a raised veggie bed, or concrete retaining walls built at seat height. Expanded family and entertaining spaces welcome visitors and can enliven a garden as well.

Vegetable beds should be no more than four-feet deep, so they can be easily accessed. Also, figure on three-feet tall for a bed tended while standing and 18 inches with a lip for sitting if you prefer being off your feet while gardening. For ease of access and maintenance, perennial and shrub beds should be narrow wherever possible as well.

Potted plants and planters can act as raised beds and can be grouped together for greater visual impact and easy access.

Re-evaluate the size of your garden. What feels like the right size now could be too much to handle in 10 years. That could mean leaving some of it natural with native plants or moving to a home with a smaller garden.


Most people know to look for a single-story dwelling, but one area they undercontemplate, or don’t contemplate at all, is transportation, according to the AARP’s Arigoni. Ask yourself if there are ways to get around once you cannot drive (on average, people live 7-10 years past when they can no longer drive). Are there bike lanes, public transportation, pedestrian walkways?


The AARP publication provides guidance for anyone wanting to make their home inclusive for all ages, whether they are homeowners or renters. According to the guide, “It’s about making sure your home is accessible to everyone.”

You can download it online or AARP will send you a free copy upon request.


Aging-in-place checklist

Therapeutic Gardens: The power of plants

The Bond of Biophilia

— Marcia Westcott Peck is a landscape designer ( or find her on Instagram at @pecklandscape or on Facebook by searching for “The Pecks”), and Dennis Peck is a former senior editor at The Oregonian/OregonLive.


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