Consider these accessibility features to welcome every body to your cottage

When we consider accessibility for those of us growing older or who live with a disability, cottages don’t exactly leap to mind. They’re usually situated on rock or sand, neither lending themselves to stable footing. They feature decks and docks, which sometimes means navigating stairs or steep grades. Cottage floors might bear the dips and divets of generations of feet. For indoor visibility, we rely on lamps. Outside at night, we rely on moonlight.

When my 92-year-old father fell four years ago, the hospital asked whether it was safe for him to return home. What they wanted to know, of course, was the likelihood of another fall. His environment was mostly safe for him, thanks to my mother’s foresight when she and my dad retired to their longtime cottage on Lake Huron. The renovations to turn it into a year-round home included anticipating what they might need to grow old there. Consequently, they put everything on one level, but there were some things that my parents didn’t consider at the time of the reno—when they were in their late 50s. Things that, once addressed, mean my father’s beloved cottage could remain his home after his fall.

Often we don’t think about ensuring that we can not only prioritize accessibility, but enjoy our cottages. “People hesitate until they need it,” says Geoff Fernie, a senior scientist at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute and a Clearwater Lake, Ont., cottager. “We don’t like to think of ourselves as disabled.” 

But sometimes it happens quickly, as with my father. For others, like Aubray Boyd and her seven-year-old daughter, Phoebe, changes are required to accommodate an existing disability. Phoebe has been blind since birth, and Aubray has a list of must-haves when she’s browsing rental cottages for her family. A beach with a shallow entry point wins out over a dock, for instance. It’s a deal-breaker if any stairs don’t have risers (“for her cane to feel so she knows when to step,” explains Boyd), and so is an owner’s refusal to let her move furniture for Phoebe’s safety.

Ideally, says Fernie, we should plan in anticipation of a need rather than a response to one. The good news is that including accessibility features doesn’t have to mean sacrificing style for function, says Moneca Kaiser, the lead designer at Moneca Kaiser Design Build in Ottawa. Many changes “can be invisible,” she says. “Your cottage doesn’t have to look like a hospital.”

If you’re lucky enough to be starting from scratch, build in accessibility elements that can adapt right into your design, whether or not you think you’re going to need it. “Typically, a cottage is seeing us through many different stages of a family’s evolution,” says Kaiser. “We want to make sure that it’s able to accommodate all those different stages.” Carla Berezowski, a certified aging in place specialist in Calgary, suggests simple accessibility assists such as plugs installed at a minimum 15″ from the floor, and switches at a maximum 48″, widening hallways and doorways to accommodate wheelchairs, and building drawers or pull-outs into cabinetry. 

Retrofitting a cottage poses challenges but is do-able, says Fernie. 

Accessibility features to begin with

At 72, Fernie has given considerable thought not only to what he will need at his place to keep it accessible, but to any cottage with an aging resident or one with a disability. 

Start at the most obvious spot. “You have to be able to get into the cottage, preferably through the front door,” he says. If you use a wheelchair, this means an entrance wide enough to accommodate that. If you have steps to a front door, you may need to replace those with a ramp. A 1:12 grade is standard (for every one foot of rise, there’s 12 feet of run, but that can be tough to manoeuvre if you have a manual wheelchair; Fernie recommends 1:20). It seems long, he says, but you can add a turn, and landscape to focus attention away from the ramp. For those who don’t need a wheelchair or scooter, at the very least, he says, ensure you have a sturdy handrail to navigate any steps. 

Once inside, after a drive from the city to the lake, your first stop will likely be…

A loo, with room to manoeuvre

Like many cottages, your bathroom might seem like an afterthought. A toilet, sure. Maybe a stall-like shower. Enough room to turn around? Barely—which, if you rely on either a wheelchair or a scooter, is a problem. “You’re probably going to have to expand the bathroom,” says Fernie—and you may have to sacrifice a room or put on an addition. “This is your highest priority. We’ve got to be able to use the bathroom comfortably.”

Berezowski agrees, but assuming you either have or can create enough bathroom space, it’s pretty simple to ensure accessibility. Faucets should have a handle instead of a knob so that you can operate the taps with a closed fist in the case of arthritis or reduced strength. In fact, she recommends lever-style handles for all faucets throughout the cottage, as well as on doors to make them easier to open.

Like Moneca Kaiser, Berezowski says there are safety options that don’t sacrifice style. “The grab bars that are available now are beautiful,” she says, and they double as towel bars or toilet paper holders. Fernie is another devotee of grab bars, particularly if your shower requires you to step in and out. A shower stall—without a lip or curb—that slopes gently away so that water drains can be a safer option. And skip a tub altogether, he says. 

If your cottage is summer-use only, Moneca Kaiser suggests an outdoor shower up against the cottage that’s fully accessible for a wheelchair. If space is available, you can construct a bathroom addition or even, says Kaiser, a self-contained accessible outbuilding. 

Wendela Roberts, who, due to scoliosis and subsequent surgeries, relies on a cane and a scooter for longer distances, installed a comfort height toilet at her family cottage on Gull Lake, Ont. It’s a few inches higher than the typical 15″ toilet, making it more comfortable to sit down and stand up. Wendela counts herself lucky that her cottage setup is ideal for mobility challenges because everything is…  

On one floor

Stairs are the enemy of accessibility. If you don’t have your bedroom on the main floor, figure out what room can be transformed into one, says Geoff Fernie. If that’s impossible, consider elevators or lifts. They have become more affordable thanks to more suppliers and more demand; about $25,000 compared to twice that, a figure Berezowski calls “a pretty good deal if you’re looking at the rest of your life.”

Aubray Boyd doesn’t eschew stairs (though “there better be banisters!” she says). “The first thing we do when we walk into a rental is to clear paths and create an open space as much as possible.” And though she’s a firm believer in allowing Phoebe to adapt to the space rather than the other way around, (“it’s really important to me that everything’s reflective of the real world,” she says), she does prefer tables with rounded edges and furniture that is against walls rather than “floating.”

With any visual impairment, Fernie suggests eliminating low furniture; it’s a tripping hazard. Purge any decor that isn’t absolutely necessary. And one more thing that’s crucial, both indoors and out, is…

Lighting your way

Geoff Fernie loves dark nights at the lake that showcase a star-filled sky—nonetheless, while we want to minimize light pollution, Carla Berezowski cautions that “by the time you’re 60, you need 50 per cent more light to see the same as when you were 30.” In other words, we need better lighting, both indoors and out though, striking a balance, says Wendela Roberts, between safety and looking like Vegas. Indoors, Berezowski says, it’s as simple as increasing the wattage and adding dimmer switches so that you can control the brightness. Use LEDs, she says, “because they offer so much power savings.” Fernie recommends LEDs both indoors and out. And get outdoor lights that turn off and on as needed, he says, such as a sensor light over your front door. You can also position lights so that they’re directed downward, which will light pathways while not adding unnecessary illumination. 

While additional outdoor lighting made navigating the pathways around her cottage safer, Wendela Roberts still had one major problem, which was…

Getting down to the dock

Given how much of her family’s cottage life took place on that dock, Wendela and her husband, Cottage Life magazine founder Al Zikovitz, considered selling their Gull Lake cottage and purchasing somewhere with less treacherous terrain. But when a summer of searching turned up nothing as appealing as what they already had, they decided instead to install an outdoor lift. Not only has Wendela been able to enjoy the dock, “the rest of the family loves being able to hike [cases of] beer up and down.” The lift has served the family for roughly two decades. Wendela considers it “a godsend.” It’s maintained annually, a precaution that runs them about $1,000 a year. Once down at the dock, Wendela gets in and out of the water via a sloped removable wooden ladder (it was featured as a project in the July/Aug ’98 issue). Stairs from the dock into the water are another possibility, though you need to ensure they don’t get slippery. Roberts has abandoned any plans to get into a canoe or a tinny. Instead, her family shares a pontoon boat with a cottage neighbour, so it’s walk on, walk off, which means that being on the water is a pleasure that she hasn’t had to give up.

While each cottage will require specific modifications, keeping the outdoors accessible should be a priority, says Moneca Kaiser, who offers up some general rules. Install guard rails wherever possible, she says, and ensure there are lots of places to sit and rest. Seating can be incorporated into landscaping; for example, terraced garden beds. If you’re building steps outdoors, make them low-rise. “Six-inches high instead of eight or nine,” she says. If your family loves to gather around an outdoor fire, similar rules apply. Situate it so that it isn’t a tripping hazard and ensure easy-to-access seating. 

Rocky uneven terrain—“a danger to life and limb,” says Roberts—made even a trip to her nearby bunkie difficult so she had a well-lit boardwalk constructed. But even post-boardwalk, she bears the scars of a fall a few years ago, blamed on a combination of open-toe sandals and the cottage’s indoor carpet.

Accessibility-focused flooring

My family’s cottage is almost entirely carpet, thanks to my mother’s desire to hide the sand that we consistently brought inside. Hard surfaces are best for mobility devices with wheels, but carpet is relatively safe, say the experts. Look for “very low profile, like the kind you’d find in a commercial building that doesn’t skid,” says Moneca Kaiser. And be alert to any buckling, which can be a tripping hazard (ask Roberts!) or interrupt smooth use of a walker, scooter, or wheelchair.

It was the uncarpeted kitchen, however, where my father fell, and though he doesn’t remember much, all it takes is a spilled glass of water to turn that vinyl floor into an ice rink. Fortunately, says Carla Berezowski, there’s lots of flooring on the market that’s slip-resistant. She particularly likes an invisible, water-based product called No Skidding, which can be added to floor tiles, or shower and tub bottoms to create suction and make surfaces less slippery. Because, along with your bathroom and bedroom, it’s impossible to avoid the…

Kitchen, the heart of the cottage

Because a cottage kitchen is often the site of late-night snacks and rainy day board games, it’s worth the effort to ensure its accessibility. Drawers are better than cabinets, says Carla Berezowski, so you can simply pull them out to access what’s inside, but if you’re dealing with existing cabinetry, put your most-used items in a drawer so you aren’t having to reach into less accessible cupboards. And a simple hardware swap to a D-shaped handle can make them easier to open. Use a contrasting colour for hardware, she says, so that it’s easy to see. Similarly, a contrasting countertop colour can provide a visual distinction because, as she reminds us, “our vision deteriorates as we age.”

Moneca Kaiser recommends adding an induction hot plate to a table top so that, if you’re in a wheelchair or need to sit, you can safely cook. “Use the table for prep,” she says, “and the induction hot plate to cook.” A dishwasher is usually still easily accessible, making dishwashing in a sink unnecessary. Or, perhaps, it’s someone else’s job.


While our experts encourage cottagers to plan what they can do to ensure the enjoyment of their lakeside retreat as they age or in the case of a disability, Fernie insists that we not sweat the small stuff. Deal with the big issues—getting inside, putting everything on one floor, adding lights and no-slip flooring, landscaping so that you can still access your deck and dock. 

Four years after his fall, my father continues to live at the cottage where he recently celebrated his 92nd birthday. His wish (the one he tells us all the time)? To keep enjoying the cottage for the rest of his life.

Be Prep-aired (groan…)

An invisible part of a cottage with accessibility features is air quality, particularly if you have asthma, COPD, or another respiratory issue. “As you age, your lungs deteriorate,” says Carla Berezowski, either in capacity or sensitivity. As much as we love a fresh breeze off the lake, keep windows closed when pollen is bad, or when there are fires, whether intentional or wildfires. Humidity levels play a big role in air quality, so consider a dehumidifier if your cottage is damp. If mold is an issue, call in the experts—it’s not a DIY task, says Berzowski. 

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