As seniors age, steps may become more uncertain, grips may weaken, eye sight may dim.
These changes can turn familiar surroundings into frustrating challenges and dangerous snares, but small investments of foresight, money, and elbow grease can keep seniors living at home safe and productive.
The first step is looking at every part of the house and furnishings with new eyes, North Central Kansas Flint Hills Agency on Aging information and assistance supervisor Karen Mayse said.
“Check to be sure everything is in good repair. We always have something broken we tend to ignore,” Mayse said. Pay attention to loose railings and steps that might have been neglected in the past. Many repairs can be done cheaply by family members or friends, Mayse said.
Lighting changes can accommodate changes in routine as well as vision.
“Lighting is a huge problem for people over 65 who don’t have the vision they did when they were younger,” Mayse said. “Seniors tend to be up more in the middle of the night. They don’t have the same sleep cycle as people that are younger.”
Installing night lights is an easy fix. Illuminated light switches stand out in dark rooms and hallways. Lamps can be fitted with touch-sensitive switches to make turning them on easy.
“Have lights that can be on at night, or lights that can come on automatically,” Mayse said.
Even a well-lighted room can create problems if there isn’t much contrast between colors.
“If you paint the walls white and put a white carpet on the floor it can cause them to lose their balance because they can’t distinguish the difference,” Mayse said. “Have good contrast between walls and floors.”
Falls are a leading cause of emergency room visits for seniors, and area rugs can be accidents waiting to happen.
“We have a physical therapist that we work with who says they’re called throw rugs for a reason – they throw you,” Mayse said.
“So many of them don’t like to move that rug because it’s been there for so many years,” Marion County Home Care Patient Care Manager Mary Ann Conyers said. “You get your feet caught in there if you drag a foot. If you have a walker, it would be very easy to push it, ripple it, and trip.”
Bathrooms present numerous potential difficulties as strength, mobility, and balance change, but simple assistive devices can minimize the hazards. Mayse and Conyers both recommended grab bars to provide support for getting up and down.
“I recommend they talk with family members, because often they can install them,” Conyers said. “People from church are often willing to help, too.”
The combination of hand-held spray showers and bath benches makes standing for showers unnecessary. Bathtub transfer seats that fit on the edge of the tub and swivel provide an intermediate step that eases getting in and out of a tub.
A hazard elsewhere, a non-slip throw rug may be useful in the bathroom, Mayse said.
“The one place you may want to have a rug like that is in the bathroom, to avoid slipping when you’re getting out of the shower or tub,” Mayse said.
As mobility becomes more of an issue, families should consider rearranging or eliminating pieces of furniture to create paths for wheelchairs or walkers.
Homes may need more extensive work to accommodate wheelchairs.
“Often doorways are not wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs,” Mayse said. “When you’re contemplating a modification, think about which of those doorways you want to widen. You don’t need to do every room in the house.
“Ramps can be built out of wood, and you can get aluminum ramps. You want to be sure you have the correct slope so a person with wheelchair can actually use it and be safe.”
Ridged knob covers make doorknobs easier to turn, and knobs can be replaced with handles.
“Anyone with arthritis, it’s hard to turn that knob,” Conyers said. “We’ve never had to have anyone change, but a suggestion for anybody building a new home is to have the handles.”
A team approach that brings together seniors, family members, and professionals such as occupational therapists works best to design and put in place modifications that will keep seniors living at home longer, Conyers said.
“You have to be ingenious dreaming up some of these things with what folks have in their existing homes to get it to be safe, and that’s the key word — safe,” Conyers said.