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Most seniors want to live independently for as long as they can. Moving into a nursing home or assisted living center, or moving in with children or other relatives, might make sense for any number of reasons, but one must take into account the senior’s self-esteem. Very few seniors are comfortable in situations where they feel they are a burden on someone else, either financially or logistically. In the United States, over 90 percent of those who own their own homes want to “age in place.”
There are various ways to modify a house to make it safer or more accessible to a senior who is beginning to lose easy mobility or who already suffers from physical limitations. Modifications can sometimes be problematic; many seniors will be living in houses that were built decades ago, well before builders were thinking about design considerations for the elderly. We might not think twice about a narrow doorway or a staircase, but for a person with physical limitations, these can be impassable barriers.
In order to determine whether a house can be modified appropriately, do a room-by-room assessment, taking into account safety and accessibility issues. There several detailed safety checklists available online that address issues such as electrical supply, electrical appliances, smoke detectors, and the like; many of these are common-sense issues, such as keeping electrical cords close to walls wherever possible and ensuring that circuits are not overloaded. For an older house, consider having a licensed electrical inspector come over and ensure that the system is safe and up to code.
Is everything in the house accessible? A senior with restricted mobility will likely not able to access the highest shelves in a closet or cabinet, so be sure that only seldom-used items are stored there. If most of the home’s storage space is inaccessible, you might need to add additional storage space. And all plugs and switches should be easily reachable. Current code specifies the proper placement of plugs and switches, but older homes may have these in odd places.
If the senior will continue to cook in the kitchen, then this is an important room to check thoroughly. Are all the cabinets easy to reach? The top shelves may be inaccessible, so put commonly used items on lower shelves. Are the countertops at a comfortable level? If they are too high to work on comfortably, they may need to be lowered. This will likely involve installing at least some new cabinetry. Are the stove controls easy to manipulate? You can install a device that will automatically turn off an electric stove, via a timer or motion detector. Such automatic switch-off devices are not yet available for gas stoves, so if you have gas, you might consider switching to electric. Also, make sure that the range hood completely covers the stove top and effectively sucks out all the cooking smoke. If the hood is too small, quantities of smoke may escape into the kitchen and the rest of the house, creating hazardous conditions.
The bathroom is another place to check carefully. In most cases, you’ll want to install grab bars both beside the toilet and in the shower area. The toilet should be “comfort-height,” slightly higher than ordinary toilets. The bathroom should have plenty of elbow room to move around in; if it’s cluttered, you might want to move some things out. And pay attention to the floor; if the floor is made of slippery ceramic tile or marble, you should install small, textured, non-slip ceramic tiles, or some other surface that is not slippery when wet.
If the home has a staircase and the senior is incapable of safely mounting or descending the stairs, you will need to install a stair lift. For straight staircases, lifts are fairly simple devices; some can be easily removed and folded up for storage when not in use for long periods of time. A straight lift will cost around $2,000 to $4,000 and is easily installed. If you have a curved staircase, a stair lift will need to be custom built; this can cost from $7,000 to as much as $15,000, so if your budget is tight you may need to find alternative solutions.
Another consideration is interior doorways, especially if the senior uses a wheelchair or walker to get around. Some interior doorways may need to be widened. You’ll need to talk with a building engineer to determine what modifications may or may not be possible. If too many doorways need widening or if it is structurally impossible to enlarge certain doorways, your home modification project may not be feasible.
Outside, you may need to install a ramp to the front door if you currently have stairs. The most important consideration is to blend the ramp in with landscaping; an obvious wheelchair ramp in front of a residence is a glaring indication that the occupant may be an easy target for crime. Think about a concrete ramp that blends in with the aesthetics of the house, or a wooden ramp that blends with a wooden deck around the front door. You may be able to “hide” a ramp in the garage or in the back of the house.
Modifying a home for a senior can be a big job, but if it allows the senior to continue living independently, the job can be well worth the expense.