Today, there are more than 35 million Americans age 65 or older. Over the next 20 years, that number will double; one in every five Americans will be age 65 or older, according to the Aging in Place Initiative, a program developed to help America’s communities prepare for the aging population.
As baby boomers approach retirement, more and more of them are looking to remain in their current homes or construct something new to suit their changing needs. In fact, “aging in place,” as the trend is called, is the fastest-growing segment of the residential remodeling industry, according to the National Association of Home Builders.
Sutton Tinsley, director of the Home Modification Division at Generation Home Medical, says creating a comfortable home for yourself is less expensive than relocating to a care facility. “Now that baby boomers are hitting 65 and older, we are seeing a whole lot more people nearing retirement. As that number continues to grow, only so many facilities are going to be available to seniors,” says Tinsley.
There are many steps that can be taken to make it easier and more comfortable for seniors to reside at home. Homeowners can opt to modify existing homes, or choose to start from scratch with age-in-place-friendly new construction. Generation Home Medical’s Home Modification Division, makes assessments and modifications so seniors can spend their retirement years at home as long as possible.
“The biggest problem that usually arises in a home that was not built for seniors is an inaccessible bathroom,” Tinsley says. “Doorways are too tiny, there is little room for maneuverability, and it’s too difficult to get in and out of the shower.”
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) website, falls are the leading cause of injury-related visits to emergency departments in the United States, and the primary cause of accidental deaths in persons beyond age 65. There are many things that can be done to prevent falls from occurring in the bathroom.
“Simple changes include installing grab bars in the bathtub or shower and by the toilet. Rubber mats in the bathtub or shower also help,” Tinsley says. “More extensive modifications include a raised toilet seat and a walk-in/roll-in shower.”
Tinsley says modifications needed throughout the rest of the home depend on the nature of the existing house. “If you’re modifying an existing two-story home, I definitely recommend the stair lift,” he says. “It’s very affordable and can be installed in just a few hours. Ramps are also very easy to build. But, I can’t stress enough the importance of bathroom safety. One fall there can mean months in an expensive facility for rehab.”
Building a new home to accommodate retirement needs could be more expensive and extensive, but could also be more comfortable and convenient. “The main thing to keep in mind with new construction is safety,” Tinsley suggests. “Always plan for the future. Don’t wait for an accident to happen; think ahead.”
Grading entry points to create zero-step entrances, stacking closets for future elevators, accessible floor plans, and universal design kitchens and bathrooms are ways to incorporate aging in place and universal design principles into new construction, according to the Aging in Place website, aginginplace.com. Universal design incorporates design elements that are most accessible to the most people to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. Their website offers these tips for seniors choosing to age in place:
• Adapt the main floor of the home for one-level living. Make sure there is a no-step entry and that there is a bathroom, bedroom, kitchen and laundry room on the main floor.
• Widen doorways to 36 inches with offset hinges on the doors. Doorways are often too narrow for walkers and wheelchairs.
• Install handheld showerheads and grab bars. These are some of the least-expensive changes you can make and are a great help to those with balance problems.
• Use lever handles on doors and plumbing fixtures. Hand strength can be an issue for all ages, and using a simple lever eliminates the struggle with operating doorknobs and faucets.
• Use “comfort height” toilets. Many people suffer from osteoporosis, arthritis or temporary injuries and find it hard to stand up from a toilet of normal height. A higher toilet or toilet chair that fits over the existing toilet helps address this challenge.
While many universal design features are simple and don’t require great expense, others can be costly and require experienced professionals. When in doubt, consult an architect or specialized contractor.
HOME SAFETY CHECKLIST FOR SENIORS
ALL LIVING SPACES
• Remove throw rugs
• Secure carpet edges
• Remove low furniture and objects on the floor
• Reduce clutter
• Remove cords and wires on the floor
• Check lighting for adequate illumination at night
• Secure carpet or treads on stairs
• Install handrails on staircases
• Eliminate chairs that are too low to sit in and get out of easily
• Avoid floor wax
• Ensure that the phone can be reached from the floor
• Install grab bars in the bathtub or shower and by the toilet
• Use rubber mats in the bathtub or shower
• Take up floor mats when bathtub or shower is not in use
• Install a raised toilet seat
• Repair cracked sidewalks
• Install handrails on stairs and steps
• Trim shrubbery along the pathway to the home
• Install adequate lighting by doorways and along walkways
Click here to download the Home Safety Checklist.
For more information on the Aging in Place Initiative, check out their website at livable.org.