A Kitchen Makeover
Preparing and cleaning up after meals and handling groceries can be challenging for stroke survivors. Standard kitchen layouts and appliances require standing, reaching, stooping, pulling and lifting. Items need to be carried from cupboards to counters to refrigerators, stoves and ovens. Pans are often heavy. Working around hot surfaces and handling hot containers can pose dangers. The good news is, it’s possible to modify your kitchen to make cooking safer and easier.
Kitchen modifications can be as simple as installing low-cost adaptations or as extensive as reconfiguring the floor plan and replacing appliances. Many effective modifications don’t cost much and won’t cause too much disruption. Some require professionals with special expertise, but many can be implemented by non-professionals or “handypersons.”
A standard kitchen design typically requires a person to reach and bend to get to wall-mounted and undercounter cabinets. Storage modifications can improve access and cut down on reaching, bending and lifting when seated or standing.
Removing shelves from under-counter cabinets and replacing them with modular pullout shelves or baskets is a low-cost option. Items can be accessed by opening the cupboard and pulling out the shelf; there is no change to the cabinet’s exterior. But upper shelves may still be inaccessible.
In a pantry, place most-often-used items on the shelves that are 30 to 54 inches off the floor. Pullout baskets and Lazy Susans can make cabinet and pantry shelves more accessible. If you don’t have a pantry, you can buy a five- to six-foot tall utility cabinet to use as one. Another option is an Autopantry® by StorageMotion, an automated, vertical-storage carousel that can be installed in a pantry or cabinet space. A pushbutton control moves the storage shelves to make items accessible.
Cooking and baking
Cooking and baking modifications improve access and reduce the risk of touching hot surfaces or heating elements. In most cases, you need to replace old appliances or introduce new ones.
Microwave ovens offer several advantages. They reduce cooking time and allow use of lightweight containers. They also reduce the risks of using hot appliances and monitoring the cooking process. While microwaves are often used for heating frozen meals, they are also handy for steaming or boiling foods in a non-metal container. A microwave stops when the timer goes off so liquid burning off or boiling over isn’t likely.
A few tips about microwaves:
Microwaves should be installed at counter height. Over-the-stove installation makes the microwave harder to reach. Reaching up to take things out of the microwave increases the risk of spilling hot foods. If you have an over-the-stove model, consider adding a second microwave on the counter. Be sure there is enough counter space in front of the microwave to place hot containers, especially if you have limited grasp or use only one hand.
Stoves, ovens and cooktops
Standard stoves/ranges offer limited access to heating elements and controls, especially for seated users. It’s best to replace a stove with a separate cooktop and wall oven if possible. Cooktop units have more accessible controls, usually near the front of the unit. A smooth cooktop is easier to keep clean and lets you slide pans from countertop to burner and back, instead of lifting pans onto and off a burner. If you must work while seated, the cooktop can be installed at desk height (30 to 32 inches) for optimal access. Do not install a cooktop with a knee cutout below. You risk scald injuries if hot liquid spills off the cooktop surface onto your lap.
Wall-mounted ovens can be installed at the height that works best for the user. Wall ovens typically open from the top, which can still block access if you’re sitting. Side-opening ovens are available but cost more and require special ordering. Wallmounted ovens should have a counter area alongside so you can place hot pots on a firm surface (and not your lap). For side-opening ovens, a pullout shelf installed below the oven provides an accessible surface.
If a wall oven is not an option, consider a countertop oven. Countertop ovens have the capacity for 10- to 12-inch diameter pans, have accessible controls and can be placed where they’re most accessible for you.
Consider configuration when you buy a new refrigerator. There are three common types: side by side, top freezer and bottom freezer. Each offers advantages and disadvantages.
- Side-by-side refrigerators are the most accessible, but they must be positioned so that both doors can be opened fully, otherwise access will be limited.
- Top-freezer models offer access to the refrigerator for a wheelchair user, but the freezer compartment isn’t accessible. If you have trouble balancing when standing, it might be hard to bend and reach into the refrigerator compartment.
- Bottom-freezer models offer more access to the refrigerator if you’re standing, but people in a wheelchair will have difficulty accessing both the refrigerator and freezer.
Regardless of configuration, adjustable shelves and pullout shelves optimize accessibility while sitting or standing. Consider a door-mounted ice maker/water dispenser to improve access.
You can install a single-lever faucet for better access. A single-lever control allows one-handed control of water temperature and pressure. For greater accessibility, you can install a motion-activated faucet. Motion activated faucets are touch-free. A wave of the hand, usually over the faucet, turns the water on and off. Water temperature and pressure can be manually set in advance. Whether you select motion-activated or single-lever, consider an integrated pull-out faucet. This feature lets you fill a container on the counter instead of in the sink. No need to lift the full container back to counter height.
Sink access is more complex, especially if you must work while seated. Removing the cabinet doors, cabinet floor and kick plate to open access under the sink can help. The sink will still be high but you can get closer to it. The area under the sink should be finished (where the kickplate and cabinet bottom have been removed), and the sink and pipes covered to provide temperature and impact protection for your knees and thighs.
If you’re the main person using the kitchen and you must be seated, consider lowering the sink. This requires removing the existing sink and sink cabinet and installing a lower one. The installation is completed with a lower, shallower sink, so your knees will still fit under it.
Meal preparation involves gathering items from pantries, cupboards and refrigerators and moving them to counters, sinks, ovens and cooktops. Some items can be placed on the counter and pushed from one area to another. But often refrigerators, sinks and stoves are along opposite or adjacent walls. If you use a cane, walker or wheelchair, carrying an item may be hard. In larger kitchens, a small cart or trolley lets you gather what you need, move it all to prep and cooking areas, and bring the prepared foods to the table. A cart or trolley is also helpful for carrying groceries into the kitchen and moving them to storage areas.
Working at a counter can be tiring while standing and difficult while sitting. Consider creating a seated work area for food prep. Some kitchens have pull-out cutting boards/shelves mounted below counter height. These offer a convenient seated work area. Or, place a large cutting board over an open kitchen drawer, typically the first drawer of a drawer cabinet. This provides a temporary work surface for a seated user. When the task is done, remove the board and close the drawer.
If you can’t stand for long, consider keeping a stool in the kitchen so you can sit at the counter.
A more expensive, permanent alternative is to replace a section of counter and cabinet with a lower, desk-height counter. This is a practical option for multigenerational households. The low counter is accessible for those who have to sit or for young children, while standing users can work at the standard-height counter.
If you must perform tasks one-handed, a modified cutting board can make chopping and other prep tasks easier and less risky. The spikes in the cutting board stabilize items to be chopped or sliced. The brace on the corner of the cutting board stabilizes slices of bread or similar items so that sandwich fillers can be spread on the bread with one hand.
Automation and remote monitoring
New developments in technology have introduced the concept “internet of things.” In the kitchen, most technology advances are associated with smart home technology, though each year the options for controlling or monitoring kitchen tasks expands.
At minimum, smart home management of kitchen tasks requires a smart phone or smart home assistant (Alexa, Google Home), wi-fi, and at least one smart home interface or appliance. With a few interfaces, you can turn lights on and off or turn on a coffee maker remotely with your phone. As smart home technology is incorporated into various appliances, the options expand. Most smart home technologies let you automate or monitor kitchen tasks without being physically in the kitchen. This can reduce the physical effort for some kitchen tasks. At minimum, you can turn on the lights and start your morning coffee before you get out of bed.
For many stroke survivors, kitchen modifications can make meal preparation and other kitchen tasks much easier, expanding meal options beyond sandwiches and frozen entrees. How you do it is up to you. Don’t want to stir the pot too much? As appliances need replacing, gradually select new ones with features that better fit your abilities and needs. Ready for a whole new menu of options? Consider an “all at once” remodel, installing new appliances and reconfiguring storage areas and surface heights to create a kitchen that suits your needs.
CAROL SIEBERT, OTD, OT/L, FAOTA is an occupational therapist in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She has more than 25 years’ experience working with individuals in their homes to enable management of daily activities while minimizing effort and risk. She is the owner of The Home Remedy Occupational Therapy practice. Carol is author of the Occupational Therapy Clinical Practice Guidelines for Home Modification and has authored and presented numerous consumer publications on modifying one’s home to make it work for you.
This information is provided as a resource to our readers. The tips, products or resources listed or linked to have not been reviewed or endorsed by the American Stroke Association.