Modifying homes to make them safer and more accessible allows many elderly people to stay in their homes during their later years. This is good news, since the majority of older Americans prefer this stay-at-home home option (often called "aging in place") to other situations like assisted living. According to the nonprofit Rebuilding Together, 80% of those aged 50 and older own their own homes, and 92% of them want to age in place. For many seniors, living in their home is not only important to their emotional well-being, it's often more cost-effective than other housing options.
This article discusses how to go about the home modification process -- from figuring out what modifications are needed to finding funds to pay for the renovations.
The Benefits of Home Modifications
A home modification adapts a living space so that occupants can live safely, perform tasks better, and live independently, despite their physical limitations. A home modification can be as simple as adding a grab bar in the bathroom or can involve extensive structural changes like replacing a stairway with a wheelchair ramp.
Older people are often in particular need of home modifications. The majority of seniors live in homes that were built long before architects and builders thought about designing spaces that are accessible and livable for everyone. Stairs and narrow doorways might have worked when a homeowner was 30 but, at age 80, those things can pose a hazard. Problematic house design can force many elder homeowners to leave their homes -- due to the danger of falling in the shower or bathtub, difficulty preparing meals when cabinets are out of reach, or inability to take the stairs to get to a bedroom on the second floor.
When planned and carried out properly, home modifications can meet the particular needs of an older occupant so that they can continue to perform the tasks necessary to caring for themselves and safely navigating their home.
Figuring Out What Home Modifications You Need
Assessing the home to determine what modifications are necessary is the first step in the home modification process. The senior or their relatives or friends can go through the home, room by room, looking for areas of improvement. You can download one of the many good home assessment checklists from the Internet to aid in this process. And sometimes it's worthwhile to turn to specialists for ideas and help in planning for home modifications.
Room By Room Assessment
Go through each room with an eye towards the following:
Safety. Does anything pose a safety hazard in the room? Can the senior move around the room and perform tasks safely?
Accessibility. Is everything accessible to the senior? Can they reach things and work switches, doors, cabinets, and plugs? Can they perform necessary or desired tasks in this room?
Adaptability. Are there things in the room that could be adapted so they are easier for the senior to reach or use or so that the senior can get around more easily and safely?
Here's an example of things to look for in a kitchen:
- Are cabinets easy to open?
- Are dishes easily reached?
- Can the senior sit while preparing meals?
- Are counter tops at a comfortable level?
- Are stove controls easy to see and easy to manipulate?
- Are there kitchen rugs or mats that pose a slipping hazard?
- Can the senior reach and easily turn on the faucet?
- Is the water temperature low enough so that it doesn't scald?
- Is there enough light?
Several organizations publish comprehensive lists of questions to ask and things to look for when assessing a home for possible modifications. For example, Rebuilding Together publishes an online Home Safety Checklist at www.rebuildingtogether.org (click "Resources," "Home Modifications," and then look for the checklist.) The American Association of Retired People (www.aarp.org) and the Fall Prevention Center of Excellence (www.homemods.org) also have online checklists.
Getting Help From a Specialist
If you're considering a home modification, sometimes it makes sense to get assessment and planning help from a specialist.
Occupational therapists. Many occupational therapists work with the elderly. They are good resources for evaluating seniors' homes for hazards and for identifying ways to make the home more user-friendly. If the senior has a particular physical limitation -- such as failing eyesight or cerebral palsy -- consider contacting an occupational therapist that specializes in that particular condition.
Certified aging-in-place specialists (CAPS). The certified aging-in-place program was developed by the National Association of Home Builders along with the AARP. Certified aging-in-place specialists (CAPS) have been trained to anticipate and meet the needs of seniors. They learn strategies and techniques for identifying barriers in a home, planning, and sometimes performing home modifications so seniors can live in their homes longer as they age. You can find CAPS in your area by visiting the AARP's website at www.aarp.org (click "Family," then "Housing & Mobility," and look for the CAPS Locator in the Resource section.)
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