There is a point in the life of an older adult when that person realizes things have changed. The person isn’t sure what all has changed, or when, but it is clear that the person is viewing their surroundings through a different lens.
This is the time when the broad issue of home safety for seniors suddenly feels personal for the individual or individuals in question and their loved ones.
The reason the surroundings feel so different is due to changes in the perceiver (the older person), not the perceived (the surroundings). That person has changed gradually but dramatically.
7 Home Modifications to Increase Home Safety for Seniors
We’ll look at seven critical parts or components of a house where older adults, especially those with mobility or sensory issues, often struggle. We’d refer to this as “elder proofing your home,” but what we’ll discuss makes the home safer for us all.
The Front Entryway
Many front entryways can feel treacherous for seniors to navigate. With some modifications and repairs, however, they can become much easier to navigate as well as more welcoming.
The Front Steps
Are the steps intact or crumbling? Do they have ledges (“lips”) that pose a tripping hazard? Is there a railing? In other words, are the front steps safe and easy for a frail person to climb? If not, it’s time for step repairs and maybe a railing.
The Front Sidewalk
Is the pavement smooth or uneven? Are there crumbling patches where someone could get a heel, cane, or walker caught? If you’re already hiring a concrete contractor for the steps, why not add a new sidewalk too?
The Front Porch or Stoop
How much standing room is there here? And is there something (e.g., a railing) to hold on to when opening the door? Would the door itself be easy to open for someone with arthritic hands?
What seems like a well-lit home to a younger person might seem dark and shadowy to someone whose vision is starting to fade. Perhaps it’s time to add more light fixtures and make sure they all accommodate LED bulbs.
Not only will the LED bulbs provide more light, but they last much longer than incandescent bulbs and save a good deal of money over the long term. Seniors will appreciate not having to change them very often too.
Also, be sure that halls and stairways have good lighting—especially those seniors are likely to use at night.
It’s easy to assume bathrooms are among the safest and most convenient places in the house for seniors. After all, they’re well-lit and the fixtures are anchored to the floor and/or walls. This would be a wrong assumption, though.
We’ll point out some elder safety tips that will change your perspective on bathroom safety for older people.
Tub and/or Shower
Zero-threshold showers have become very popular lately—for many people, not just seniors. So are rain shower head, hand-held showerheads, and shower chairs. Installing these certainly could add value to your home.
Zero-threshold showers make it easy for seniors to either walk into the shower without tripping or enter in a wheelchair. Some, however, might prefer a walk-in tub, with a handheld showerhead—to use for baths or showers.
Sink and Vanity
If you or your senior loved one uses a wheelchair, it is recommended that the cabinet(s) under the sink be removed so the wheelchair can get as close to the faucet as possible. And remember that storage space should also be accessible.
“The space below the sink in an accessible bathroom should have a 27-inch clearance for knees, and the sink should be no higher than 34 inches. Install a tilted mirror that will allow for a seated person to easily see themselves to get ready.”
Whichever option you choose, there should be multiple sturdy grab bars that could be used by anyone to prevent slipping or falling.
“The toilet in an accessible bathroom should be between 17 and 19 inches high so that transferring to a wheelchair or walker is easier and more comfortable.” And grab bars should, ideally, be placed on either side, with toilet paper in easy reach.
The kitchen shares some accessibility challenges with the bathroom—for example, access to and use of the sink. There are a lot of activities that take place in the kitchen as well.
The kitchen is used for cooking, food storage, storage of dishes and utensils, dish-washing, clean-up, and sometimes eating. There are safety hazards in this space, as well as multiple mobility challenges.
For example, if a senior had reduced sensation, as many do, it could be hard to detect a hot stove burner or scalding water.
And if a senior can even reach high cabinets to get dishes (for example), there is a risk of dropping them and causing injury from either what has fallen or breakage. There are similar concerns with knives and other cutting or chopping tools.
For safety’s sake, we recommend that a professional accessibility and safety consultant be brought in for any kitchen modifications
Walls and Windows
As we age, our circulation tends to worsen and we become cold more easily and find it hard to get—and stay—warm. Do your aging parents (or grandparents) seem to grumble constantly about how cold you keep your own home?
Not only should the HVAC systems be reliable, but the walls and windows should also effectively protect residents from extreme outdoor temperatures—which, when they seep inside—can undo most of the work of the heat and air conditioning.
Many seniors dread the stairs. They fear falling—and rightly so. Steps can be narrow. While carpeted stairways can help ease a fall, they also can be slippery. And sometimes there are unseen objects left on the stairs.
Many have had stairlifts or home elevators installed so they can avoid climbing or descending stairs altogether. This would be our recommendation as well—provided you can afford it. If not, you should consolidate living space on a single floor.
This would include kitchen, bath, bedroom, and living room/study. And it would do even more than a lift could to prevent falls and discomfort due to mobility issues. The upper floor can be reserved for guests and storage.
And don’t forget safety during the time(s) when any or all of this recommended work is taking place. Among other things, you should put up portable safety railings to assist with walking through or around the work areas.
Final Thoughts on Home Modifications for Seniors (and others)
What we’ve discussed here could be considered “elderly safety tips.” However, they really could be safety tips for anyone at all. Think about this as you ponder the issue of home safety for seniors.
If you’re renovating to accommodate primarily the needs of an older person, try to focus on a broader range of users than just that individual. Doing these updates should increase the home’s market value. Why?
Consider the principles of universal design (UD), a system of design that tries to meet as many diverse needs as possible through a single effort or project.
The zero-threshold shower discussed above is an example of universal design. Another example is LED lighting. These are efforts that make things easier and more pleasant for most people—while accommodating so-called “special needs.”
We think UD is great! And if you’re looking for other ways to add value to a home, be sure to check out our blog for more ideas.