Most seniors would rather stay in their own homes than move to a nursing home. According to the AARP, 90 percent of people over 65 want to remain at home as long as possible, and 80 percent believe they will always live at their current home.
But that means making sure your home fits you. As people age, they often suffer from poor mobility or health problems that make it hard to stay. For instance, they may have trouble making it up and down the stairs, or caring for a large yard. Eventually, poor health may force you to leave your home and go elsewhere.
Remaining at home takes planning and effort. There are certain changes, both large and small, that you can make right now to make sure your home will fit your needs for years to come.
Why People Resist Making Changes
Most homes were not designed with seniors in mind. But even when people need to make some changes to stay at home, there are three main reasons they might not want to:
- They don’t want to “medicalize” their home
- They don’t think they need it now or will need it in the future
- They worry about the cost
Starting with the first reason, many people are worried that their house will start to look like a nursing home if they start adding ramps, railings, or stair lifts. These things may also be a reminder that you are getting older and losing some mobility, which can be frightening.
But you don’t have to make drastic changes right away. Something as small as moving a rug or adding some no-slip strips to your shower can make a big difference without being too noticeable.
Of course, even drastic changes are better than the alternative. Would you rather your home include a ramp or move to a nursing home that has its own?
Moving to the second reason, people who do not need these changes at the moment wonder why they should bother thinking about it now. Thinking about it would just admit that you’ll struggle in the future.
But if you wait, eventually you might wait too long. Many people only make these adjustments after a crisis. But early changes might have prevented that crisis in the first place. And, if you don’t make these changes, you might have to leave your home, if only temporarily, until these updates are made.
More likely than not, you will need to make these changes eventually. It’s better to start early when you can take the time to plan things properly and can still make some improvements yourself. According to the Centre for Ageing Better, the earlier you start, the more effective these changes can be.
The final obstacle, cost, is the most serious concern. There are local organizations that can help you pay for home improvements. Also, many helpful changes are not very expensive. The more drastic changes, though, can cost more. The important thing to keep in mind is that these expenses are an investment in your future: they will help keep you in your home.
Getting Around Your House
The New River Valley Aging in Place Leadership team has created a workbook designed to walk you through decisions about aging in place. When it comes to your home, most of their advice involves preventing falls and making it easier to get around.
The following changes can make it easier for you:
- Making sure you have a step-free entrance to your home and flat doorways
- Removing tripping hazards like mats, floor rugs, and decorations
- Fixing all carpets firmly to the floor (you can use double-sided tape) and making sure they’re free from wrinkles
- Installing lever door handles (which are easier to use than doorknobs)
- Adding secure handrails or railings where necessary
- Making sure you can easily reach light switches, outlets, or thermostats, including from a seated position
- Adding nightlights to bedrooms, bathrooms, and hallways to make it easy to walk around at night
Some of these changes, like removing tripping hazards or adding nightlights, you can do right now. Others, like installing lever door handles, will require a bit more effort but should not be too difficult.
There are two more significant things you may want to consider as well:
- Is there a bedroom, full bath, and kitchen on the first floor?
- Are your doorways and hallways wide enough for a wheelchair (32 inches for doors and 36 inches for halls)?
You might not be able to fix these things right now, and of course not everyone will need a wheelchair. But, these things may be signs you should consider a backup plan if your home cannot meet your needs one day.
The Stairs: A Common Problem
Having a bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen on the first floor can be important because seniors struggle with stairs more than anything else. In an AARP survey, 35 percent of people who reported a mobility problem said they had the most trouble using the stairs.
Installing a stair lift is always an option in that case. But, there are other small things you can do to keep yourself safe on the stairs:
- Repairing worn or damaged carpets
- Adding no-slip strips to uncarpeted stairs
- Painting the edge of the stairs with a color that stands out so you can clearly see it
- Installing light switches at the top and bottom of the stairs, so they are always well-lit
- Adding handrails to both sides of the stairs
Except for installing light switches and adding handrails, you can probably make each of these changes yourself in an afternoon.
The Bathroom: Prevent Slips
Not surprisingly, most of the changes you will want to make in the bathroom are to prevent slips and falls. You can make your bathroom safer by:
- Adding no-slip strips to your floor, especially in the shower or tub
- Using rubber, lie-flat bathmats (never use towels or throw rugs)
- Installing grab bars in the bathtub, shower, and toilet area
- Replacing any knobs in the shower or sink with lever handles
- Raising the toilet seat to a comfortable height (you can add a removable seat)
- Placing a removable seat in the shower/bath, if there is not a seat already
Again, many of these changes are fairly simple.
If you only have a tub, you may consider replacing it with a walk-in/roll-in shower. That way you can get in and out without stepping. This change will be a bit more expensive, but will prevent falls and make it easier if you need a wheelchair one day.
The Kitchen: Keep Everything within Reach
The changes that your kitchen might need depend on how it is arranged. Mostly, you will want things within easy reach so you don’t need a step stool or to bend down too far.
To check if your kitchen is properly laid out, ask yourself the following questions:
- Are the cabinets and cupboards easy to open?
- Can I reach them without a step stool?
- Is the dishwasher high enough for comfortable loading?
- Can I reach the stove and counters from a seated position (in case I need a wheelchair)?
Finally, make sure you always have a fire extinguisher nearby. Get it properly inspected, and make sure you know how to use it.
Handling Regular Maintenance
Changing your home to fit your needs is not just about mobility. You should also make sure you can keep up with daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly maintenance. Maintaining a home is much cheaper and safer than repairing one damaged by leaks or plumbing problems.
The most obvious home maintenance task is cleaning. The larger your house, and the more furniture you have, the more difficult it will be. That’s one reason apartments are becoming more popular with seniors.
Home maintenance also includes your yard: gardening, cutting the grass, trimming trees, and other outdoor chores. It’s important to look at your entire property, inside and outside, to make sure you can keep up with it.
Keep in mind that this will all get more difficult as you age. You can hire someone to take care of these jobs if you cannot do them yourself, but those costs can add up.
There are also less obvious tasks that you probably cannot take care of yourself. That includes things like roof repair, plumbing, or installing major appliances. You will need to consider these costs as well when deciding how long you can remain in your home.
A Caregiver Can Help
Depending on your current home, you might have trouble making all the changes you would need to in order to stay there on your own. In that case, a caregiver can help you with some of the daily tasks necessary for you to age in place.
In studies of seniors living at home, caregiving was one of the best ways to deal with a home that didn’t quite fit their needs. Older adults without access to support or home health services were more likely to end up in a nursing home.
Ideally, you should also ask your caregiver’s opinions on any home modifications. Otherwise, you can end up with cramped bathrooms, narrow showers, or constricted doorways that don’t leave enough space for two people. A trained caregiver can help you spot these problems ahead of time.
Overall, finding a quality home health aide can help you stay at home longer, and enjoy greater health.
You Need to Be Proactive
The most important thing to keep in mind is that if you want to stay at home, you need to start planning early. You don’t need to do everything now. Make a few small changes today before a small issue becomes a crisis.