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Older Americans improving their home with hammer and paintbrush

Home improvements can help you age in place gracefully

by Amanda Lambert | Contributor
October 23, 2020


Most older adults say they want to age in place, which means at home. This idea is entirely understandable since your home is where memories are made, and you feel most comfortable. You may have purchased your home when you were younger, healthier and independent with little thought about accessibility for your later years.

Today, universal design – the idea of building a home with eventual disability in mind – is not standard in the construction industry. However, many accessibility features such as grab bars, no barrier entries and wide doorways are becoming more common in new construction. The dilemma is how to make your current home an “age in place” home that ensures safety and longevity.

What happens as you age?

First, a disclaimer, accidents happen at any age. If you have ever broken a wrist, arm, leg or had surgery you know how disabling that can be. Suddenly, all of the activities that you took for granted are now a huge challenge. Aging brings its own unique changes as well:

  • Falls are the leading cause of disability for older adults. According to the National Council on Aging, “every 11 seconds, an older adult is treated in the emergency room for a fall; every 19 minutes, an older adult dies from a fall.”
  • Chronic medical conditions lead to declining function and loss of mobility.
  • Osteoporosis accelerates after the age of 50, making bones more brittle.
  • It takes longer to recover from broken bones and surgeries as you get older.
  • You may be in a wheelchair after an accident or injury.
  • Eyesight and hearing problems get worse with age, which increases fall risk and can contribute to cognitive impairment.
  • Memory problems associated with dementia lead to safety issues such as wandering, unsafe bathing, leaving the stove unattended and poor balance.

Accessibility modifications

So what are some reasonable accessibility changes you can make to your current home to safely accommodate aging in place? The first step in modifying your home is to evaluate the cost-benefit ratio of making changes. If you have a tri-level home or one that has spiral staircases, you may want to think about whether it makes sense to pay for wholesale changes to the home. Is it more feasible to buy a single-level home with more accessibility features built-in? If you feel like you can invest in home modifications, these are some suggestions on how to get started.

  • Grab bars. Grab bars in the bathroom are a simple, inexpensive and effective safety addition. If you have ever broken a leg, arm or shoulder, you know how handy these are.
  • Stair glides. Stair glides or stairlifts are battery-powered devices that eliminate the need to walk up the stairs. According to their literature, they can be fitted to any type of stair. The downside? The cost. Depending on the length and complexity of the stairs, stairlifts can cost thousands of dollars. Medicare does not cover the cost.
  • Ramps. If you are confined to a wheelchair or can’t access the stairs either temporarily or permanently, you will need a ramp. The cost of a ramp depends on the type of material you use. The cost can be in the thousands. The slope is the most important consideration in building a ramp to have enough room to accommodate slope for the ramp.
  • Handicapped accessible bathroom
  • Bathroom modifications. In addition to grab bars, other bathroom modifications will make for a safer environment. The most important is the tub/shower area. If you have a tub with a shower, stepping over the tub is a significant fall risk. There are only two realistic solutions. One is to convert the tub to a walk-in shower. The other is the convert the existing tub to a walk-in. Costs will vary depending on multiple factors. Another simple bathroom idea is a toilet riser with arms. Also, install a handheld showerhead and buy a shower chair.
  • Doorways. If you are in a wheelchair, you will need to move about your house freely. For this to happen, doorways need to be 32 inches wide. Many older homes do not have 32-inch doorways. Your options are to remodel the doorways, or in some cases, interior doors can be removed to create enough space for a wheelchair to fit through.
  • Counter height. Being in a wheelchair is tough if you can’t reach the counter or cabinets. Independence is all about being able to do as much as you can. If you are permanently in a wheelchair, then a kitchen remodel might be the only answer to full accessibility.
  • Handrails. Handrails should be installed on any stairway, inside or outside the house.
  • Low-tech ideas. Sometimes easy, low-tech, low-expense ideas are overlooked when it comes to safety. If you want to age in place, prevention can be the best intervention. Here are some safety ideas that are relatively inexpensive and might prevent an accident or injury:
    • If you are a fall risk, get an emergency response system (ERS). An ERS can mean the difference between life and death following a fall and serious injury. There are a variety of options, including devices that detect falls automatically and have built-in GPS.
    • Declutter your home to reduce fall risk. Clutter such as throw rugs, stacked magazines and other items are a major cause of falls. Consider rearranging furniture for easier mobility.
    • Improve lighting, especially to the bathroom at night. Many falls happen at night when you are going to the bathroom.

Investing in your home to age in place

It can be a challenge to think about your aging in terms of disability. If you don’t need the changes now, why invest? The reasons are simple. The last thing you want to do after an injury or illness is trying to find someone to install grab bars or a stairlift when time is of the essence.

Start with the small, affordable options like grab bars, handheld showerhead, railings and even a walk-in shower. These changes are more likely to add value to your home as well while giving you a foundation of support as you age in place.

Alliance America can help

Alliance America is an insurance and financial services company. Our financial professionals can assist you in maximizing your retirement resources and achieving your future goals. We have access to an array of products and services, all focused on helping you enjoy the retirement lifestyle you want and deserve. You can request a no-cost, no-obligation consultation by calling 833-219-6884 today.

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