How To Make Your Home Accessible for a Senior Loved One

With age comes wisdom… and new limitations. Sometimes even the most independent people need assistance as they age. As Baby Boomers reach senior status, nursing homes across the country are becoming more populated. But is a nursing home the best option?

A pricey investment, these facilities have a high communicable disease transmission rate and a generally poor reputation for individualized care. Worst yet, they remove your loved one from the environment and routine they enjoy.

That’s why more grown children are returning to the traditions of old by welcoming aging loved ones into their homes. Not only does in-home care save money, but it's also emotionally beneficial to your loved one, who has a better chance of staying active and engaged. Familial living also allows grown children to watch for health and cognitive changes

Grandmother and granddaughter bonding time.

Despite the benefits, the decision to move a loved one into your home should not be glossed over. Before you hire movers, think through details and lay out a detailed plan on how you intend to prepare for the transition.

While you consider your space and your family’s current patterns (and needed adjustments), you’ll need to pinpoint possible hazardous areas and identify modifications that need to be made for safe accessibility. While many projects can be done yourself at a low cost, it’s vitally important that you know when it’s time to call in a professional.

Daughter sharing a moment of laughter with her aging father.

Questions to Ask Yourself

Bringing a new adult into any home is an adjustment for everyone. Where will they stay? Particularly when mobility is a concern, rooming seniors on the ground floor with easy access to a restroom is ideal. If there is not already a bedroom available on the ground floor, is there a room that you can convert? Could someone move to a different, less-accessible room? If a ground-floor space is not available, how can stairs be made safe and accessible?

Getting Your Family Ready for Change

As this change will affect your entire family, proper preparation should include pre-transition family meetings. In an open forum, allow all family members to express concerns about the move, brainstorm accessibility constraints, and discuss behavioral and location changes that may be necessary. For example, a child may have to change rooms, or bunk up with a sibling to make room.

Additionally, there may be a need for behavioral changes, such as minimizing the number of guests you have, keeping the TV volume higher or lower, or not using the restroom that has been made accessible to your loved one. These changes can potentially cause distress to household members, so it’s essential that all members have the opportunity to discuss the changes that are expected of them. Open conversation promotes compassion and empathy for the pending transition.

Spending time in her favorite chair.

Evaluating Your Space

Survey any space in your home that your senior can access, checking for blocked accessibility and potential hazards. You’ll want to look for things such as loose rugs, cords that cut across open space, steps and ledges between rooms, and even the habits of your other family members. For example, if you have children or a dog, and toys regularly end up strewn about, part of your preparation will be implementing a better clean-up routine to avoid trip hazards.

Easy Ways to Make Your Home More Accessible

  • Adjust Your Doors
    If your loved one is in a wheelchair or uses a walker; narrow doors can make access problematic. Doors that open inward take up much-needed space and complicate navigation. Refitting your door with offset door hinges and making the door open outward are easy fixes that give your entryway a few more inches. You can also attach a string to the doorknob or install an automatic door closer, so loved ones can quickly close the door behind them without added steps.

  • Make it Easier to Get Up and Down
    Getting up and down can be difficult for those with stiff joints. A raised toilet seat is more comfortable for seniors to use because they don't have to squat down as far. Combine this with grab bars on the walls of the toilet and shower, and you have created a safer space for your loved one. Reduce slip danger by installing non-slip runners in the tub/shower, just outside the tub or shower, and in front of the sink where water often pools.

Safety pull bars installed in the bathroom.

  • Modify the Bed
    Getting in and out of bed can be another source of anxiety for both you and your loved one. Just as in the bathroom, they will want to retain independence for as long as possible, while you worry that they may slip and fall. So what can you do to create a safer space? Install a bed support rail, a safety device that attaches to the side of the bed and provides stable leverage for climbing in and out.

  • Eliminate Trip Hazards
    Safety hazards and accessibility constraints can be found throughout the home. Area rugs, for example, are beautiful accent pieces that help keep your home warm but are a tripping hazard. Even the most agile seniors with mobility issues can trip and fall on kicked-up rugs. Rugs also make it harder for walkers and wheelchairs to maneuver through a room. If rugs are necessary or desired, limit them to thin mats and secure them to the floor with an appropriate adhesive.

  • Consider Cabinet Hardware
    Do you use knobs to open doors, drawers, and cabinets? Though stylish, knobs require hand dexterity and grip strength that may be lacking in your elder. Consider switching knobbed handles for pull handles. This motion is more natural and requires less grip strength as they can use their full upper bodies to move the door or drawer. Pull handles come in all sizes and styles and can be fitted to any door or drawer that opens outward.

Pull bars are easier to grip than decorative knobs.

  • Evaluate Entryways
    Entryways in homes are often separated by a threshold that causes a lip or full step between the two rooms. Crossing between these uneven surfaces is dangerous, if not impossible, for seniors with mobility difficulties. While a contractor could come in and modify your home, a simpler solution is to purchase or build wheelchair ramps that cross these thresholds and that lead up to the entryway of your home. Secure a ramp in your home, and keep a portable ramp in the car for effortless travel and transport.

How to Save Money on In-Home Accessibility Projects

As it’s unlikely that you have unlimited funds, preparing your home for your senior loved one needs to be done right, but done on a budget. While a contractor can come out and convert your whole house into an ADA-compliant masterpiece, such a project would be prohibitively expensive for most people looking, in part, to avoid the cost of long-term nursing care.

Thankfully, many of these modifications – such as the ones listed in the previous section – can be done on your own at low cost. Hinges, no-slip mats, and rug adhesives cost a few dollars each - and personally installing grab bars, raised toilet seats, bed rails, and ramps cut your cost down to materials.

When deciding whether you should take on an accessibility project yourself or call in professionals, there are a few things to consider.

  • Can you safely build or install the modification?
    It does no good for you, the caregiver, to hurt yourself. Performing handiwork outside of your capacity leaves the potential for additional hazards – and expenses.

    If your loved one is expecting to put weight on a grab bar, but it was not installed correctly, fails, and causes them to fall, you now have an emergency on your hands and an injury requiring additional care. With safety being the number one priority, only take on projects that you're fully confident you can complete successfully.

Home installation accessibility project.

  • Do you have the skillset to complete the project?
    Say you start a project, such as a ramp for the step between your kitchen and dining room, and halfway through realize you're in over your head. Don’t be ashamed to ask for help.

    Remember, a safe ramp is far better than a faulty one that cannot withstand weight or is installed inappropriately. Knowing when to call for backup is just as important as knowing when the project itself is not within your ability.

  • Does the project require expert installers?
    For some projects, it’s best to call in the professionals from the start. A chair lift, for example, isn’t something that can be handled on your own unless you happen to be a contractor or an electrician.

    In general, the installation of any large accessibility fixture (i.e., a step-in tub), or anything that requires rewiring (lowering light-switches to enable access from a sitting position) should be left to the professionals.

    If you're not sure of what you will need and would like to speak to a consultant, call Certified Aging-In-Place Specialists (CAPS), a part of the National Association of Home Builders. These experts can help you with the survey process and can connect you to the resources you'll need to make your home accessible. Consultants can even help with DIY accessibility projects by confirming things like whether or not the location of your intended grab bar has the wall support necessary to bear weight.

    Accessibility consultants are often no more expensive than remodeling consultants and are a terrific way to get advice and direction for any projects you decide to take on.

Final Thoughts

Welcoming an aging loved one into the home is a big decision that will impact everyone who currently lives in your home. More than preparing your home for accessibility, the transition will require everyone working together to ensure that safety is the number one priority. When adding a loved one to the household displaces current members, time should be given to process and adjust to the needed changes.

Overall, in-home familial living is far more beneficial for aging seniors than nursing care. Close to a family that knows and loves them, they are more likely to stay engaged mentally, physically, and socially, which increases their overall well-being and quality of life. Being close to loved ones can also help with depression, anxiety, and even memory.

Living with family improves quality of life for aging loved ones.

Depending on your loved one's needs, modifications to your home can be simple, complex, or somewhere in between. You can handle many adjustments independent of professionals, but seeking professional guidance for complex tasks is recommended to ensure the safety of you and your loved one. As their needs change or their stability decreases, additional adjustments may be needed. Routinely track how well current accommodations are working, brainstorm for better solutions, and respond to signs of danger as quickly as possible.

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