People’s living priorities change as they age. Unfortunately, sometimes a living space no longer suits those priorities. Accessibility can be a major problem for older adults who need a space that’s not overcrowded with loose objects and furniture, and one that’s not too difficult to navigate for seniors in a wheelchair or those who need a walker or cane. It’s a difficult adjustment for people who’ve never had to worry about getting around in their own homes. At some point, modifications are needed if a senior with restricted mobility wishes to continue living at home, or it may be necessary to find a home that’s better suited to their needs.
If so, you’ll need to downsize your household to create more space and less clutter. It’s an emotionally and physically demanding, though necessary, task that will benefit you in the long run. Seek the help of a friend or family member who can help you make the right decisions.
The first and most obvious access issue is getting through the front door and having unimpeded access to a vehicle in the driveway. All home entry points must be wide enough to admit wheelchairs. If there are stairs leading to the front door, an access ramp may be needed beginning at the driveway, which should be wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair and a wheelchair-accessible vehicle. If there’s a garage, it should be modified for mobility-impaired individuals and be large enough for a van equipped with a lift or ramp.
Stairways and stories
Stairways are one of the most troublesome obstacles for mobility-impaired individuals. For seniors who can no longer walk without assistance, stairs may be completely unsafe and off-limits. In such a situation, you may opt to have a stair lift installed (at an average cost of between $3,000 and $5,000), or it may be necessary to find a single-story home if yours isn’t conducive to such a modification (or if the cost is beyond your budget). Remember that some stairlifts can go around bends and curves, while others will only do the trick if your stairway has no contours.
Bathroom accessibility can be a tricky thing. It’s usually a small space, one of the smallest rooms in the house, yet it requires a high degree of maneuverability for proper bathing and toileting. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 230,000 people a year visit an emergency room due to a bathroom-related injury. For seniors, grab rails along the toilet and in the shower area (which should have roll-in accessibility) are absolutely essential for safety and mobility, as are rubber, skid-resistant pads, which should be placed in the bathing area and in front of the sink. An elevated toilet seat may be necessary if you can’t safely lower yourself onto it. If your sink isn’t integrated, make sure it’s well-bolted to the wall to prevent tipping if you need to use it to support your weight.
Accessibility and safety go hand in hand in the kitchen, much as they do in the bathroom. There should be plenty of room for wheelchair access, including adequate leg room under your counter space for food preparation and other kitchen-related activities. It may be necessary to lower your counter from 36 inches (the standard height) to 34 inches so a wheelchair-bound individual can reach it comfortably (it may also be necessary to remove cabinet doors below the counter). Bear in mind that comfort and ready access are important for safety if you anticipate working frequently with kitchen knives and other sharp objects.
Angie’s List recommends that homeowners make changes to their hallways as well. They advise, “Make sure hallways are lit with automatic night lights, which will assist in navigating your home in the dark.” This will not only make it easier to navigate a cane, walker, or wheelchair in dim lighting, it will also help prevent falls. Further, hallways should be devoid of tripping hazards (like power cords) as well as furniture (like decorative tables or lamps) so the walking space is as wide as possible.
Remember that thick carpeting can be a problem and potential hazard for people in wheelchairs or those who must use a cane or walker. Laminate or tile may be better options, though a carpet with reduced thickness will resist wear and tear better than tile and make it easier to move around in general.
Broad changes have been made in private and public accessibility for mobility-impaired Americans over the past 30 years. But many homes present challenges for seniors who wish to age in place and maintain a high degree of mobility and accessibility. Depending on an individual’s condition, this can usually be accomplished with some internal and external modifications that make your home more senior-friendly.