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Safe at Home: Combine Design Sense with Common Sense

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Aging safely at home does not need to be complicated, but design sense combined with common sense could help ensure independence. Planning is key.

According to research by Home Instead, Inc., franchisor of the Home Instead® network, while only 7 percent of seniors surveyed think they won't be able to stay in their homes as they get older, just 13 percent of those who want to stay at home list it as disabled accessible. What's more, modifications to make the home more accessible for walkers/wheelchairs are among the least desirable modifications among those survey respondents. In fact, most select "not applicable" for these, as though they can't imagine that being a need in the future.

Universal design, also known as inclusive design, barrier-free design, design-for-all and lifespan design, refers to the concept that all design (products, technologies and configurations of the built environment) should serve the broadest range of people, regardless of their individual levels of ability or mobility, age, gender or physical stature.

Danise Levine, architect and assistant director of the IDeA Center (Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access) at the University at Buffalo, provides help to those not only looking to age in place but also people who need improved access and safety at home through universal design. The IDeA Center conducts research, outreach, dissemination of information and training in accessible and universal design.

Levine has designed more than 900 home modification projects in the western New York area that have allowed people to remain in their home for as long as possible. "The most common modifications in the home are done to bathrooms as they tend to be the most problematic, regardless of ability or disability. They typically have narrow doorways, lack adequate floor space and are full of hard, slippery surfaces. Additionally, many people have difficulty climbing in and out of bathtubs, which increases the risk of falls," Levine said.

Another common feature of the home that often presents a challenge is the stairway. Bedrooms and bathrooms are often located on the second floor and can create a barrier for people who have difficulty walking or climbing the stairs. Common solutions include improved lighting, adding a stair lift, installing handrails on both sides, and if possible, providing a first-floor bedroom, according to Levine.

According to the Home Instead survey, the most desired features in a home include:

  • Single floor living (85 percent)
  • Easy (84 percent) or low-cost (83 percent) of maintenance
  • Safe location (77 percent)
  • Location (70 percent)

"A lot of changes happen over the course of a lifetime that affect our abilities to function in our homes: expected aging issues as well as sudden medical conditions," Levine noted. "When an unexpected event occurs, homeowners and residents are often forced to make changes to their environment without the ability to plan ahead. Additionally, they don't know who to call for help or have the awareness to know what modifications will benefit them. When a sudden injury occurs, the main goal of the family is often to have the injured person return home as quickly as possible from the hospital or rehabilitation facility. That usually involves modifying an entry, since most homes are raised above the ground and have stairs. This can be done quickly with a prefabricated ramp, but this is not a permanent solution. Ideally, a more permanent solution, like a wooden ramp or vertical platform lift, would be better, but it would require more time to plan."

While some changes require more extensive remodeling and have higher costs associated, others are simple fixes any family member could do. "When I go into some homes I see a lot of excessive clutter throughout the house. Lack of storage is always an issue and presents a big problem, especially for those people who have difficulty walking or use a wheeled mobility device. Clutter throughout the house, especially in hallways, makes it difficult to maneuver and creates tripping hazards. If the clutter could be removed it would provide a much safer environment."

Home Instead asked real-life family caregivers what they had done to make their senior's home more age-friendly and safe. Here is what they said:

"I cleared out trash and empty boxes, cleaned up a few closets and a computer room full of boxes. My mother was always falling over them."

"I got rid of area rugs and carpets."

"I pitched outdated and dried up food."

"I created a safe, positive environment with nice music."

"I made items he commonly used more accessible, including bringing them lower on shelves or in the refrigerator."

One family caregiver noted the importance of doing a safety check in a senior's home. For help, complete the Making Home Safer Home Safety Checklist.

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Last revised: February 26, 2019

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