Most of us want to continue living in our current homes as we age. But one of the consequences of ageing is being less agile. Being less agile means our risk of falls goes up, and navigating our home may be more difficult. Just as new parents can “child-proof” a home for the kids, as adults we can “adult-proof” our homes to make them safer and easier to move around in.
Here are some simple things to think about as you review your current spaces and make improvements. If you go through this review and realize that your home needs major changes to get up to code or be fully navigable, then you may want to consider renovating areas of the home, moving to a new home that has what you need, or even building a home.
Stairs. If your home has stairs, and many do, it's not a problem as long as you are still able to climb them safely. Take a look at them now. Handrails should be installed on both sides of the stairs. They should be graspable – meaning you can actually get a grip on them to stabilize yourself when going up and down. They should be sturdy and not loose. If you are going up or down and miss a step or lose your balance, is the rail strong enough to catch your fall if you grab them? One million injuries a year in the United States are caused by falling down stairways. It's not expensive to get these things corrected. Basement stairs, in particular, are culprits.
Bathrooms. Two hundred and fifty thousand people a year are injured in bathroom accidents. Most of these are getting in and out of the tub or shower. Go take a look now. Do you have plenty of grab bars or railings in the bathroom? Like the stairs, installing multiple of catch-your-fall devices will go a long way in preventing injury, and it's not terribly expensive. Even if your bath has almost no safety devices, they can be easily installed. From railings and grab bars to toilet frames, local and online stores are full of choices. One caveat on the Good Grip suction cup hand grabbers – you may see them advertised – if they lose their grip (suction) and you need it, they could be worse than nothing at all. One day I grabbed one and it came loose in my hand. I fell forward and was lucky to escape without injury. I recommend you install bars permanently into the wall making sure they attach to wall studs. Architect Jerry Allan says, “In a bathtub or shower, you need three points of contact, so [that means] two grab bars within reach. I call it the mountain climber's rule.”
Lighting. We have a tendency to get up in the middle of the night and navigate to the bathroom in the dark. This is fine until we trip over the sneakers that were left in the hallway. At the same time, we don't want to wake up too much (turning on lights) because we want to go back to sleep. To solve this dilemma, plug in some night lights that will show you the sneakers or boxes lurking in the hallway, but won't be glaring.
Pathways. We think of pathways outside that can cause tripping and balance problems, but pathways indoors are just as important. When I say pathways, I mean being able to walk around furniture, between rooms, and in and out doors. As simple as this sounds, you'd be amazed at how much “stuff” can be in the way. Take a look now at how navigable your home is and if there are any areas you think can be cleaned or widened.
Rugs. We don't think much about area rugs, but they can trip us if we're not careful. Whether they are on wood, carpet, or tile and linoleum, it's an extra quarter inch that can catch the front of your foot or shoe. And on wood and tile, area rugs can slip if they don't have a rubber backing. Look around now and identify area rugs. Check that they lie flat, and that they don't slide.
Getting help with renovations from professionals. The National Association of Homebuilders created a program called Aging-in-Place Specialists (CAPS) which is a program for architects, interior designers and contractors. The NAHB offers courses in design, communications, and business management; the purpose is to be able to advise homeowners about what things they need to do to stay safe and healthy in their homes. A checklist is available on their website: NAHB.org.
Building. If you are building a home and you expect to stay in that home as long as possible, then plan safety and security in from the start. Consider a single ground floor layout with easy access to the outside and to the garage. Have the laundry on the main floor. If you really want a second floor, consider putting in an elevator shaft in case you decide on an elevator later, or room for a motorized lift on the stairs. Design easy access garden spaces, large fixed windows, a room for hobbies, and a guest room. An open floor plan for living, kitchen, and dining will make the primary spaces look bigger and inviting. A small but comfortable home that is well insulated and well ventilated will be energy efficient and not cost a lot to run and maintain.
Plan for the future now. It will be here before you know it.