The vast majority of senior citizens want to remain in their homes and communities as they age, according to a 2014 report from the AARP Public Policy Institute. That's perfectly understandable. But if you decide to "age in place" – or if an older adult lives with you – you may have to make some modifications to your home. You want to ensure it has basic accessibility features needed for you or your loved one to live there safely, comfortably and as independently as possible.  

Home modifications can range from structural changes or additions to the home (e.g., widening doorways or adding a first-floor bathroom) to the installation of special equipment (e.g., handrails and grab bars). Modifications can also include the addition of assistive devices, such as bath benches and walkers, and general repairs to make sure things are functioning properly and safely.

While every situation is different, here are some common ways to retrofit your house for an older adult.

  1. Ease-of-of-use items. This category includes things designed to make everyday tasks easier, such as doorknob grippers, levered doorknobs, levered faucets, oversized lamp switches and key-turning aids.
  2. Grab bars. Grab bars are safety devices designed to help you keep your balance, lessen fatigue while standing, support some of your weight while you move and give you something to hold onto if you slip and fall. Most often, grab bars are installed in the bathrooms, next to the toilet and in the shower or tub.
  3. Handrails. Like grab bars, handrails help you stay balanced (and give you something to reach for if you lose your balance), avoid fatigue and partially support you as you walk or stand. Handrails should be installed on both sides of stairways, and on your front and rear steps. They can also be installed in long hallways where there might not be anything else to grab onto.
  4. Shower/bath features. Modifications might include adding non-skid strips, a portable shower seat with a movable showerhead to reach you while you are sitting, or installing a specialized low-threshold shower/bath that is easy to step into and/or that allows sitting while bathing.
  5. Smoothing of floors. These make it easier to maneuver with a wheelchair, scooter or walker, and reduce the risk of falling in general. Modifications might include removing carpeting and rugs, removing door thresholds or saddles, and installing smooth flooring such as hardwood, laminate or vinyl.
  6. Widening of doorframes. This modification provides greater access to common areas such as kitchens, bathrooms and bedrooms. In some cases, walls have to be widened as well, to accommodate a wheelchair and/or scooter.
  7. Stair lifts. These might be necessary if the living areas are on a separate floor than the bedrooms and/or bathrooms. Stair lifts carry you up and down stairs while in a safe, seated position, and they mount to the stair treads – not the wall – so they are typically very sturdy.
  8. Ramps. If you or your loved one uses a wheelchair or scooter, or otherwise has trouble navigating stairs, you may need to install a ramp to enter and exit the home if it’s not level with the ground.
  9. Security systems. This includes both remote monitoring systems for the house and personal emergency-response systems.
  10. Remodeling. Renovations can include turning a downstairs room (such as a den) into a bedroom, adding a downstairs bathroom (or turning an existing powder room into a full bath), or constructing an entire accessory apartment for you, your loved one or a live-in caregiver.

The Bottom Line

These are 10 of the most common home modifications done to help an older person live safely, comfortably and as independently as possible at home. You may need all these modifications – or just a few. The costs of modifications can range from a few dollars for things like extra-large lamp switches and doorknob grippers, to $3,000-plus for a straight stair glide and $10,000 and up for construction projects such as adding a new bedroom and/or bathroom. For those larger jobs, you might like to see some Tips For Dealing With A Renovations Contractor.

While it pays for personal devices such as walkers and wheelchairs, Medicare usually does not cover permanent home installations or equipment (but it never hurts to ask!). However, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) does in some cases, via its home-modification grants – worth investigating if the senior ever served in a branch of the military.

If you need help deciding which modifications are appropriate for your home, you can contact a Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist (CAPS): remodelers and contractors who have been trained to anticipate and meet the needs of older adults. They can do a room-by-room assessment and make recommendations. The program was developed by the National Association of Home Builders and the AARP. To find a CAPS certified contractor in your area, visit the National Association of Home Builders website (click on FIND, select Designees and check CAPS and your state to search for local specialists.

Desirable as it may be to stay in the old homestead, a new place is sometimes the better choice. To determine if that's your situation, see Retrofitting vs. Moving: What's Better for Seniors?






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