"Aging in place" is a strategy that helps elderly loved ones stay in their homes longer.
In elder care, the growing “aging in place” movement aims to keep seniors in their own homes for as long as possible. Though it doesn’t apply to every health situation, a few basic changes around the house can help some older people remain in their own, comfortable homes and apartments, rather than moving to a facility.
Here, two representatives from senior care organizations offer tips on updating a home for a senior relative.
Call in the experts.
Christian Rabito, marketing director at Home Instead’s Metairie office, points families to the company’s home safety checklist (viewable online at www.makinghomesafeforseniors.com). A Home Instead representative can come to your relative’s house and do a walk-through based on the checklist, looking for issues that might not be obvious to families. For example, stray electrical cords, household clutter (such as magazines and clothes on furniture or the floor) and commonplace accessories like throw rugs are easy to overlook, but can be a tripping hazard.
Home Care Solutions owner Dianne C. McGraw suggests seeking out a certified aging in place specialist, a designation offered by the National Association of Home Builders. These professionals are versed in the latest home modifications that benefit seniors. Among other changes, they can adjust countertop heights in the kitchen, add bathtubs that feature a swinging door entryway and check that doorways are wide enough for a person using a walker or wheelchair. (A 36-inch doorway should be wide enough, McGraw says.)
Look for trouble spots.
Pay special attention to the unique features of each room — is there water in the room, possibly creating slippery surfaces? Or something that could start a fire, such as a stove?
“The bathroom, I think, is one of the riskiest places in the home,” McGraw says. “It’s where most falls occur with older people.” Grab bars in the shower or bath are probably the best-known home safety addition for elderly people, and new styles of grab bar resemble towel racks and have a less medical appearance. Non-slip mats, a shower chair or a built-in seat are more safety additions to the tub. Bathroom lighting should be adjusted for people experiencing vision issues — consider lights under or inside cabinets, and brighter lighting overall.
In the kitchen, some families consider unhooking the stove completely. Even electric stoves can be hazardous for people with vision problems, who may not be able to see that the burners are on. Make sure there’s a working microwave in the home as a replacement.
Small changes make a big difference.
Especially for people with fine motor control issues and weakness, little adjustments can go a long way.
Rubber grips on doorknobs make handles easier to turn. Swapping light switch panels for a larger, flat switch, rather than a small toggle, also helps people with motor issues. A piece of plywood under soft squishy couch cushions, or elevating the couch a few inches on blocks, helps seniors who have trouble getting up from a sitting position.
In the bedroom, guardrails on the bed can be helpful for people who are at risk of falling or who may become disoriented in bed. Lower closet bars and shelves can improve accessibility for people with reaching or gripping issues.
Ring the alarm.
If your senior relative doesn’t have a full-time caregiver, several monitoring tools are available to help families check in. Within the home, some families use baby monitors to keep an eye on a relative who is in a different room. There also are bedside floor mats that can sound an alarm when your relative gets out of bed.
“A lot can happen to somebody who shouldn’t be getting up alone, and who’s a real fall risk,” McGraw says.
Some of today’s monitors have visual and audio component, and some families use remote-streaming “nannycam”-style cameras to ease their minds.
Many security companies offer wearable alarms seniors can press after falling. A key in a lockbox outside the front door is helpful for security professionals checking on your relative, or if EMTs are called to the house.
Watch for changes and recalibrate.
Rabito says families sometimes can be surprised by seniors’ health changes after a hospital stay. If your relative has been in the hospital, go back to the home and make adjustments based on new mobility needs. “Especially at that age, it’s not that easy to recuperate,” he says.