Stay-at-home solutions: Start Thinking About Home Improvements for Aging Well

As we get older, our homes often require adjustments to ensure our safety, accessibility, and overall well-being. With a few simple home improvements, you can transform your home to meet the changing needs that can come with age.

When asked, most Americans say they plan to stay in their current residence for as long as possible. In its most recent Home and Community Preferences Survey, AARP found that 63% adults over 18 expressed a preference for “aging-in-place”. That percentage climbs as high as 89% for adults 55 and older. In fact, the Wilder Research Minnesota COMPASS report finds that 90% of older Minnesotans live independently in their own homes.

One need that changes with age is more pronounced concerns about safety. Our homes are not always the safest place for us to live as we get older. For example, one all too common risk is falling. According to the Minnesota Depart of Health, the leading cause of injury among older adults are falls – most of which occur in or near our homes.

In 2021, there were 71,000 falls in Minnesota and 1,200 deaths caused by falls among adults 55 and older. Despite these statistics falls are not inevitable nor are they an inevitable consequence of aging. There are things you can do to not only reduce your risk of falling, but also enhance your general safety and comfort.

As we age, maintaining our independence becomes an important priority. Creating an accessible home allows you to move freely, perform daily tasks without assistance, and continue enjoying life on your terms. Preserving independence not only enhances your quality of life but also contributes to a sense of control and self-sufficiency.

Aging in place is not just a lifestyle choice. It’s a smart financial decision. Investing in home modifications now can save you money in the long run compared to the ongoing costs associated with assisted living or nursing homes. Beyond the financial aspect, staying in your own home offers emotional security by allowing you to maintain the familiar surroundings and community connections that contribute to your overall happiness and peace of mind.

You should begin the process of home improvements for aging in place by conducting a thorough assessment of your home. Identify potential hazards and areas that may pose challenges to mobility. Assess the layout, entryways, bathroom, kitchen, and bedroom to gain a holistic understanding of the space. Consider consulting with professionals such as occupational therapists or aging-in-place specialists who can provide valuable insights and recommendations tailored to the individual's specific situation. This assessment serves as the foundation for creating a customized plan for home modifications.

What sorts of improvements might you need to consider? Improving bathroom safety, optimizing the kitchen for convenience, and integrating smart home technology, are three good examples of how you can extend the time you spend in the comfort of your own home.

Enhancing Bathroom Safety:

The bathroom is a critical area where safety concerns often arise, and a few strategic improvements can make a significant difference.

  • Install Grab Bars: Place sturdy grab bars near the toilet and in the shower or bathtub. These provide essential support and stability, reducing the risk of slips and falls. opt for stylish grab bars that seamlessly blend with your bathroom decor.
  • Consider a Walk-In Shower: Replace traditional tubs with walk-in showers to eliminate the need for stepping over high thresholds. A seamless transition into the shower enhances accessibility and reduces the likelihood of accidents.
  • Non-Slip Flooring: Choose flooring materials with non-slip properties to minimize the risk of slipping, especially in wet areas. Non-slip mats or rugs are also effective in enhancing traction and safety.

Dementia-friendly Tip: Use contrasting colors for bathroom fixtures, such as toilet seats and grab bars, to make them easily distinguishable and reduce confusion.

Kitchen Convenience and Comfort:

The kitchen is the heart of the home, and simple modifications can transform it into a more user-friendly space for aging individuals.

  1. Lower Countertops: Lowering kitchen countertops can make daily tasks, such as meal preparation, more comfortable and less strenuous on the back. Consider creating dedicated workspaces at various heights to accommodate different needs.
  2. Pull-Out Shelves: Install pull-out shelves in lower cabinets to eliminate the need for bending and reaching. These shelves make it easier to access pots, pans, and groceries, promoting a more organized and efficient kitchen.
  3. Improved Lighting: Adequate lighting is crucial in the kitchen. Ensure that workspaces are well-lit and consider installing under-cabinet lighting to illuminate countertops. Enhanced visibility reduces the risk of accidents and makes cooking and meal preparation more enjoyable.

Dementia-Friendly Tip: Label cabinets and drawers with large, easy-to-read labels or pictures indicating their contents.

Smart Home Integration:

Embracing smart home technology can introduce convenience and safety features that extend the time one can comfortably age in place.

  • Voice-Activated Assistants: Implement voice-activated assistants, such as smart speakers, to control lighting, thermostats, and other devices. This hands-free technology makes it easier to manage the home environment.
  • Smart Doorbells: Install smart doorbells equipped with video capabilities. This allows for remote monitoring and communication with visitors, enhancing security and providing peace of mind.
  • Medical Alert Systems: Consider investing in a medical alert system that offers quick access to emergency assistance. These systems provide an extra layer of safety, particularly for individuals living alone.

Dementia-Friendly Tip: Install smart security systems with video monitoring to ensure safety and allow remote monitoring by caregivers or family members.

In addition to these improvements, you will also want to consider other rooms in your home as well as entryways, hallways, stairs, yards and gardens. Also, remaining in a safe and accessible “home” is not limited to single-family houses. These improvements should be considered for apartments, townhouses, condos, mobile homes, and accessory dwelling units.

Renters will need to seek permission to make improvements that require remodeling or installation, but fair housing and accessibility laws generally support making these requests. Some improvements can be do it yourself projects, others (for example, grab bars) are best done by professionals (carpenters, plumbers, electricians, and the like).

Caregivers should recognize that the process of preparing a home for aging in place is dynamic. As your care recipient’s needs evolve, ongoing support and adaptations are essential. Regular reassessments of the home environment, open communication, and flexibility in implementing additional modifications will ensure that the living space continues to meet the changing requirements of the aging individual.

Creating a living space that supports aging in place is an investment in your future well-being. Research has shown that making even small home improvements can reduce medical care costs, increase accomplishing daily activities, and extend independent living.

With a focus on practical and purposeful home improvements, you can extend the time you spend in the comfort of your own home. These changes not only address immediate needs but also contribute to a more secure and fulfilling living environment for the years to come. Remember, a few thoughtful adjustments can go a long way in transforming your home into a place that supports aging in place with grace and dignity.

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This article originally appeared in Today, February 2023.

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