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Home Access Modifications

Make modifications now to live longer at home

By Betty Booker


Many of us put off thinking about making the changes to our homes and our habits that would let us live at home longer, if not for life.


Why the procrastination, when most boomers and seniors say they want to live at home forever?


“It is purely being unrealistic and expecting that they will never grow old – a common problem for most seniors,” says William K. Wasch, a nationally known home modification expert and author of “Home Planning for Your Later Years.”


But modifications made before disabilities or health problems occur – plus the right mix of in-home support services – can extend your ability to continue your independent life.

There is good reason to make such changes, according to the National Resource Center on Supportive Housing and Home Modification, which provides research on modifications and support services that help “semi-independent elders who need assistance with daily activities.”

Modifications and repairs can prevent falls and injuries, help reduce the stress of reduced physical abilities and “increase the likelihood of older persons remaining independent in their homes and active in their communities as long as they desire,” the center’s Web site says.

The results of home modifications and repairs may help eliminate perhaps a third of home accidents, according to the National Center for Disease Control.


There are many changes housing specialists recommend.


Access between garage and house needs to be level, or a ramp installed, to overcome the three- or four-step barrier into typical houses, says Wasch, a National Council on Aging board member.


“Do a commonsense walk from the outside in a wheel chair to see what can be done physically to the house for easier access,” he says.


Occupational therapists can evaluate the home for hazards and teach ways to adapt your house and yard to your current condition (or possible future frailty). Other home modification experts include Certified Aging-in-Place Specialists (CAPS), those with an Executive Certificate in Home Modification, home health agencies, disability organizations, builders and consultants in aging.


Next on Wasch’s to-do list is a ground-floor bathroom.


“Sometimes a lavatory can be converted and space next to it can be utilized to make it work,” he continues. He recommends a walk-in shower if space allows.


“If there is not enough space for a ground floor bath/shower, install a stair lift so folks can continue to use their second-floor bath and bedroom,” he adds. Install grab bars.


Replace your conventional toilet seat with one that raises the toilet seat height to 18 inches.


Up the wattage of kitchen lights: “Often increased wattage is a simple, low-cost tool for visual problems which come with age,” he continues.


Shadows cast by insufficient light can be dangerous for people with vision problems, says Elinor Ginzler, senior vice president of AARP’s Livable Communities in the Office of Social Impact.


Also, Ginzler says, put things used daily in easily reached places. Reorganize shelves to eliminate seldom-used items. Choose a stove with front controls. Stepstools, if still safe to use, should have handrails on both sides. The AARP home safety assessment guide includes inexpensive, low-cost or no-cost ways to make homes safer and more comfortable.


Bring the washer and dryer up to the kitchen to avoid basement stairs, Wasch says. Basement stairs, which commonly have open risers that heels can hook on, should have handrails on both sides.


Or hire in-home assistance for laundry if elders are unable to safely navigate basement stairs, says Wendy Lustbader, a Seattle-based author, geriatric social worker who teaches at the University of Washington.


The National Center on Supportive Services and Home Modification also suggests replacing conventional door knobs with lever door handles; grab bars by the toilet, tub and shower; a hand-held, flexible-hose shower head; lever sink handles that are easy to operate; sliding shelves in cabinets and lazy-susan turntables in corner cabinets, C– or D-shaped cabinet and drawer pulls that are easy to grasp, and handrails on outside steps. has a room-by-room checklist of other recommended modifications prepared with the National Association of Home Builders.


“Most people, including boomers, like their home and want to stay in their home and receive care there,” Ginzler says. Indeed, an AARP study found that 79 percent of boomers want to stay in their homes as long as possible, and the percentage rises the older you are.


Ideally, concludes Wasch: “Make the changes before the crisis.”

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