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Home Accessibility and Safety for Seniors

  • Published: 2009-01-03 (Revised/Updated 2014-05-20) : Author: Tim Mancino : Contact: -
  • Synopsis: A number of accessibility and home safety tips for seniors and disabled to make a home safe and accessible.

Quote: "As we age a walk-in shower is preferred to a standard tub. Pre-fab shower stalls typically have a built in non-skid surface and some include grab bars."

Main Document

As we age, getting around in the home we have lived in for many years, can become much more difficult! It can seem like a hassle having to go up the stairs just to use the bathroom, or having to carry laundry up and down basement steps. Sometimes our home no longer seems as 'user-friendly' or as 'safe', when we are a little bit older and move a little bit slower.

When seniors have to cope with health-related issues and safety concerns; some may chose to move into a place that is more accessible, but others will remain in the same home, even when it is not always in their best interest.

It is important that seniors make the home environment as safe and as functional as possible. If unsure of the home situation, an Occupational Therapist can be consulted. They can make recommendations on home accessibility and safety and provide useful information for the client and the family. Also, a local DME (durable medical equipment) company, can be a resource for many of the products recommended.

Whether staying put in an older home or moving to a newer home, here are a few things for seniors to consider:

Carpeting in the home should be low profile, such as with Berber carpeting. The padding should be no more than 3/8 inch thick. This makes it easier to navigate with a walker or wheelchair (w/c), and this provides more stability for those with poor balance. Hardwood floors and marble floors can often be slick, especially when wet, so precaution is needed. And throw rugs are not a good idea.

Doors should be wide enough to allow access for a w/c or walker. If the door width is too narrow by only an inch or so, a double-hinge (offset hinge) can be added; which allows the door to open away from the frame and this provides another 1-2 inches of width for access. Ideally, the bathroom door should swing out, not in; which allows easier exiting for someone using a walker or w/c.

If the home has stairs, make sure there is at least one handrail that goes the full length of the stairs. For non-carpeted stairs, use non-skid stair treads. The stairwell should have adequate lighting. A backpack can be used to take items up and down stairs; so the person can hold onto the handrails. If no longer able to navigate stairs, products such as the "Acorn Chair Lift" can be installed in most homes.

As we age a walk-in shower is preferred to a standard tub. Pre-fab shower stalls typically have a built in non-skid surface and some include grab bars. Tile floors in the shower will need a non-skid bath mat for safety. A shower seat and long handle shower extension allow for bathing while seated.

If a standard tub is used, a tub bar clamp can be securely attached to the side of the tub and help with safely transitioning in and out. A tub transfer bench can be used if unable to safely step in and out of the tub. Do not trust the suction cup grab bars attached to walls, use only grab bars that are securely attached to the studs.

Toilets that are a few inches taller are now becoming the standard in newer homes. Various toilet seat risers are one option for low toilets, but these are sometimes less convenient than replacing them with the ADA standard 17-19 inch seat height toilet commonly available.

Newer homes often have large kitchens and taller cabinets, but sometimes the tops shelves are out of reach for seniors. Look for storage space and cabinets that are within easy reach. Some corner shelves have room for a turnstile (Lazy Susan) that provides for more storage with easy access. A suction tip 'reacher' can help retrieve items out of reach.

A side-by-side refrigerator is often a good choice, as many more items can be placed within easy reach and the doors are not as wide. This makes it more convenient for someone who uses a walker or w/c. A walker bag or basket can help transport items, which allows the person to not compromise safety.

Newer homes often include an island for food preparation. It is typically taller than the counters, which allows for better access while standing. Unfortunately, seniors may need to sit for longer periods while in the kitchen area, and tall bar stools that pivot and do not have back support, are not a safe option for many. If a home is being custom built, the island can be made lower and have more depth underneath, which allows better access for a w/c or standard chair.

A front-loading washer and dryer mounted on stands, can make doing laundry less of an effort with less bending and lifting. Use a cart with wheels to move items around in the laundry area. (A cart is often convenient for the kitchen area also.) Do not carry laundry up and down stairs. A backpack (book bag) can be helpful. There are local senior agencies that provide various levels of care for seniors, and they can be enlisted to help with laundry and other household chores.

Electric stoves are safer to use than gas stoves, as people often lose the ability to smell as they age. And there is less risk of clothing catching on fire.

Homes should have both smoke detectors and CO detectors at every level of the home. Newer homes are pre-wired with detectors (electrically hardwired) and do not need to rely on batteries, which have to be constantly checked and replaced.

Make sure there are plenty of phones in the home, such as in the kitchen and bedrooms. Newer homes will have these extra phone jacks, but older homes typically do not.

GFCI ground fault electrical outlets should be installed in the kitchen, bathrooms, and outdoor areas, to prevent electrical shock from appliances. Newer homes will have these due to the updated electrical code, but some older homes may not comply with this code.

If there are steps going into the home and a walker or w/c is needed; a ramp, either temporary or permanent, can be used. A 1:12 incline is preferred, but 1:10 incline is acceptable in some instances. (Every one inch of height requires 10 or 12 inches of length.) The steeper pitch of 1:10 makes it more difficult to go up quickly and down slowly, and is more effort for the person who has to push the w/c. Temporary or permanent ramps can be installed by a local DME company.

Reference: Tim Mancino, OTR/L, is a licensed Occupational Therapist & Consultant, with over 12 years rehabilitation experience working with seniors.

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