All of us are much more familiar with our living spaces today than we were ten months ago. A pandemic lockdown and fear of infection or death can do that to a person. The safest place is within our own four walls. Whether a home, apartment, condo, farmhouse, RV, yurt…wherever we call home, has been our refuge. Of course, at times, it has felt like a prison, too.
Betty and I spent part of New Year’s day talking about this year’s budget and our spending plans. For now, long and involved vacation trips are still off the table, though we might take a few three or four-day jaunts in the immediate area. Luckily, where we live has enough variety in climate and scenery to make that interesting enough to keep us from going stir-crazy.
More of our thought went into a few renovation and remodeling plans for our home. We have been in this house for almost six years and expect to live here for another eight years or so. With that amount of time in one place, we discussed a desire to freshen our living space by making some decoration changes.
More importantly, we wondered what we could do to make the home safer as we age. While a retirement community is our ultimate plan, Covid has forced us to wonder about that choice. The horror stories of unchecked illness in such settings and the inability of the family to visit us in the event of another pandemic are terrifying scenarios.
Statistics show that one in 3 people over 65 will fall at some point, and most suffer some type of damage. Among this age group, a fall is the leading cause of death by injury. That group includes both of us, so suddenly, I was paying full attention.
I did some basic research and found several things we could do over the next few years to our home if aging in place became our preferred option, at least for longer than we had originally planned. Some are quite pricey and may not be worth the cost. Others are both affordable and proactive steps to keep us safer at home.
Here is the full list I developed that has become part of our discussions. We will not tackle all of these straight away, but it is good to have all the options in front of us.
- Walk-In Tubs: Walk-In Tubs are not cheap but a major modification to consider. They are safe, easy to use, and allow anyone the independence of giving themselves a bath. Walk-in tubs have slip-resistant floors and built-in hand grips. They are much safer than a standard bathtub or shower. While modifying the bathroom, we could install a raised toilet seat with handles. Thousands are hurt each year by using too low a toilet for an aging body to use safely.
- Throw rugs. If placed over wood floors or tiles, small rugs can easily cause one to trip or slip. Plastic mats placed by doors to prevent mud or snow from being tracked into the house are an accident waiting to happen. We have mats by each door that, even with anti-slip bottoms, will move. Our carpeting is a low nap, so that is good.
- Levered Handles: Levered handles are much easier to use than standard doorknobs. Instead of turning a knob, levered handles allow a door to open by merely pushing the handle down. Arthritis can make twisting a knob quite difficult. With a lever, a push-down, and the door opens. I easily installed several of these this past fall. It was a welcome change.
- Stair Railings: If there are stairs in your home, it is a good idea to have additional hand railings installed. Usually, there is a railing on only one side of the staircase. Make sure all railings extend the full length of the stairs. Place nonskid tape strips or reflective strips on stair risers to prevent any sliding or falling on the staircase. Our home is one level, so this is one worry we do not have.
- Widened Door Openings: Widened door openings are essential for anyone who uses a walker or wheelchair. Housing with narrow doorways or hallways can essentially trap someone in a wheelchair in just a few areas of the home. We will have to consider this expensive retrofit for one of the bathrooms and Betty’s office door.
- Sinks and cabinets: Sinks are another modification that can make life much easier for seniors. With levered faucets and lowered counter surfaces, they can be used without as much effort. Check that there is enough room between the floor and bottom of the sink to allow wheelchair access. The same approach applies to cabinets in the bathroom or kitchen. If possible, lower them so reaching isn’t necessary. This might become an expensive necessity for us later on. For now, we use safe stepstools when something is too high to reach comfortably.
- Extensions cords. Ensure those wires from lamps, fans, or stereos are not crossing a path through a room or sticking out from behind the couch. Many older homes may not have GFI (ground fault interrupter) electrical outlets in bathrooms and kitchens. That oversight can kill. Replacement outlets are quite affordable. I have done so both inside and outside our home with no damage to our wiring or my body! Now, I must move/hide a few cords.
- Brighter Lighting. As we age, our eyesight declines. Brighter light is required for all tasks, as well as reading and safely moving through a room. Install extra lamps (though watch out for excessive cords..see above) or wall lamps. Use brighter bulbs where possible. This is high on our list. The living room and master bedroom are too dark.
- Remove unnecessary clutter. It is simply amazing the amount of stuff we accumulate if we live in a house for any number of years. You don’t even have to have a pack rat-type personality to have a dangerous amount of clutter. In addition to being a tripping hazard, fire is another concern as we age. Our ability to quickly exit a burning home is diminished if things are cluttered. Also, we are rethinking the placement of furniture. If someone uses a wheelchair or a walker the general guideline is at least 5 feet between any two pieces of furniture.
Like me, until I undertook this review, you may be thinking that none of this applies to you yet. That may be true, but you are only one accident away. How about a relative or friend? Do you know someone else who could benefit from some of these safety fixes?
There are probably another dozen suggestions that I could have added, but I want to encourage you to jump in now with your thoughts. What else could make a house safer? What modifications will allow us to stay in our homes as long as possible, as independent as we’d to like be, and still be safe?