Simple fixes and smart thinking can ensure a safe environment for seniors. Stairs are the most obvious barrier to seniors hoping to stay in their homes as long as possible. But lighting, bath and kitchen design as well as access to home systems all require a top-to-bottom rethinking to ensure the elderly can manage the house and their daily lives.
Health care and aging plans now assume seniors prefer to stay home as long as possible. The Affordable Care Act expanded coverage for home health services. The AARP found in a 2012 survey that 90 percent of people aged 60 and over intend to continue living in their current homes for the next decade. While most believe they can do so without remodeling, the time to blend in accessible features is before aging homeowners need them.
Design and building professionals have become knowledgeable in the principles of “universal design,” the concept that makes the design of the house easy to navigate for everyone, not just those with compromised abilities, according to the National Association of Homebuilders. By using universal design principles to gradually adapt the home for long-term senior living, seniors can be sure that their space will meet their needs and those of visitors and health care providers.
Regina Ford, founder of Lifelong Home LLC, a Beaverton, Ore.-based consulting firm that helps seniors and families assess their homes for independent living, says the conversation is often prompted by stairs but quickly turns to other problems.
Here are some important considerations to keep in mind while making a home friendlier to seniors:
Even if the homeowner can manage the stairs to the main floor, entry stairs can be problematic for bringing in walkers, wheelchairs and medical equipment. Home services that come to seniors, such as meal deliveries, medical professionals and other aids, also need a safe route inside.
Bath and kitchen
Bathrooms and kitchens are expensive to remodel, which is why many consultants recommend integrating universal design into new projects, says Ford. Key considerations: positioning at least one sink and a stretch of counter in both bathroom and kitchen to be accessible for someone sitting down, either in a wheelchair or just in a chair. Some homeowners replace the shower or bathtub with a zero-barrier, roll-in shower that has a handheld shower head, grab bars and a built-in bench – amenities that are often welcomed by younger people, too.
An easy fix, says Ford, is replacing ball-style faucet handles and traditional doorknobs with levers. Levers are easy to manage even with limited grip strength, and they don’t tax arthritic hands, she says.
Overhead but often overlooked, lighting is a key component to independent living. Lights need to be brighter to offset deteriorating vision, and controls need to be positioned for easy access by people using wheelchairs or walkers, says Ford. Temperature, sound and home safety monitors and controls also need to be similarly situated. When electrical work is scheduled, it’s smart to add a few outlets at the same height, for plugging in nightlights where walkers won’t bump them.
Hardwood floors are easier for wheeled supports and shuffling seniors, but it’s the transition between one type of floor and another – say, from wood to carpet – that’s often a tripping hazard, says Ford. Removing or minimizing thresholds and transitions between rooms can smooth daily living and help minimize falls.
Finding someone who can anticipate seniors’ needs involves more than calling the local handyman, says Ford. Independent living consultants charge about $200 and up to evaluate a modest-sized house. The National Association of Homebuilders offers in-place consultants but, says Ford, it’s important to understand how builder-affiliated consultants are paid, as fees for some are folded into a remodeling project bid.
“Be proactive,” she says. “Think about these things while you’re healthy and when you’re young enough to pay for construction.”
Learn more now about how you can design your space with senior citizen safety in mind.