According to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, slips, trips, and falls are the leading cause of injury in Americans aged 65 and older. Approximately 36 million falls are reported amongst this demographic each year, resulting in 32,000 deaths annually. Even falls that don’t result in death can result in serious injury, which occurs in one out of five incidents.
You want to do everything possible to reduce the risk of that happening to you or a loved one. As it turns out, one of the best ways to do that is to make your home more wheelchair-friendly. Even in the absence of clear physical disabilities, a handicap-accessible home can significantly improve the quality of life for an elder who’s aging in place.
This is because many measures and modifications that improve accessibility also provide safeguards against slips, trips, and falls—all while making things more convenient for seniors.
So with that in mind, let’s talk about how to create a handicap-accessible home for seniors. Note that you by no means have to incorporate all of these recommendations. They’re just meant to give you a starting point.
Replace Your Stairs (Or Invest In A Stair Lift)
Stairs represent a major hazard for anyone with limited mobility, and it probably comes as no surprise that they’re also a leading cause of injury for seniors. Analysis of lower limb movement to determine the effect of manipulating the appearance of stairs to improve safety: a linked series of laboratory-based, repeated measures studies, a research brief published by the National Library of Medicine’s National Center for Biotechnology Information website, goes into great detail on why this is the case. It states that falls are not the result of any single contributing factor.
Falls in older people are not random, chance events or accidents, but, rather, are typically multifactorial events,” reads the brief. “Risk factors include increasing age, female sex, lower-limb disabilities, impaired muscle strength, hypotension, stroke, arthritis, diabetes, cognitive impairment, Parkinson’s disease, visual impairment, sedative use, polypharmacy (taking more than four prescription medications per day) and a history of falls.”
The best way to address the hazard posed by stairs is to either remove them entirely from your home or install an overlay to convert them into a ramp. Alternatively, you might consider investing in a chair lift. Although typically installed as permanent fixtures, portable chair lifts also exist.
Remodel Your Bathroom
The bathroom is another hotbed of injury, with multiple surfaces that become incredibly slick with the presence of water. Moreover, most bathrooms aren’t designed with accessibility in mind and instead have high toilets and countertops, tall sides on tubs, or simply insufficient space. As such, a bathroom remodel should be your first course of action in making your home more accessible.
Our recommendations include:
- Replacing your toilet with a wheelchair-accessible model and installing a safety frame around the unit to reduce the risk of falling. Alternatively, you can add a toilet riser.
- Investing in a step-in tub or walk-in shower.
- Installing bath/shower handrails and seats.
- Lining floors with slip-resistant, high-friction surfaces to reduce the chance of a harmful fall.
- Modify your bathroom sink. A wall-mounted sink with 26-30 inches of clearance beneath them is ideal for anyone in a wheelchair. A single-handle lever faucet is also preferable to knob faucets.
Your bathroom isn’t the only place you should consider installing handrails. Grab rails are also incredibly valuable in the bedroom, as they can greatly assist a low-mobility person in getting into and out of bed. Other places you might want to consider railing include the living room, dining room, office—anywhere you can think of that an elder might need assistance sitting down and standing up.
Finally, you may want to modify rods and shelving in your closets so they’re closer to the ground and thus easier for someone in a wheelchair to access.
Modify Your Doors
Most of our recommendations thus far have been fairly obvious. They’re the first things everyone thinks of where accessibility is concerned. Our next recommendation is a bit less so.
Believe it or not, most traditional doors are incredibly cumbersome for individuals with limited mobility, especially those with difficulty gripping objects. The simplest solution to this problem is to replace the doorknobs in your home with push/pull bars. Other options include pocket doors, control switches, push pads, and ‘smart doors’ that can be operated via a companion app on a smartphone.
While we’re on the topic, you might also want to consider widening your doorways so it’s easier to maneuver walkers, wheelchairs, and other assistive devices through them. Offset hinges that allow a door to swing inward and outward is also an excellent idea.
Install Smart Home Features
Smartphone-operated doors are only the tip of the iceberg regarding smart home features and functionality. There are now Internet-connected smart devices to replace virtually every appliance and fixture in your home, from your lights and doorbell to your kitchen appliances and thermostat. These devices can typically be controlled in a multitude of different ways, including through a companion app and via a voice-controlled virtual assistant.
At the absolute minimum, we’d recommend looking into a smart thermostat and smart lighting, which afford greater control over the environment regardless of one’s mobility. Other smart devices that could potentially make life easier for seniors include:
- A Smart TV that can be operated without a remote control.
- Smart displays for the bedroom, kitchen, and/or office.
- Smart speakers for music and with a built-in virtual assistant.
- Smart plugs to allow non-Internet-connected devices to be controlled as part of a smart home.
- Smart window shades to enable greater control over natural lighting.
- Smart sensors, which can be used to:
- Automatically turn devices on or off when someone enters or leaves a room.
- Trigger a home security alarm.
- Open and close smart doors.
- Smart locks that allow doors to be locked and unlocked via smartphone rather than requiring a set of keys.
- Water leak detectors.
- Touchless smart faucets for kitchens and bathrooms.
- An automated robotic vacuum such as a Roomba. Some models also combine vacuuming with mopping, which provides some much-needed assistance in keeping the home clean for anyone with limited mobility.
As a disclaimer, before installing any of the devices described above, be mindful of safety, security, and usability. Prior to purchasing any smart device, do your research. Look for news of security incidents or usability issues, and examine what people say in their reviews.
Once you’ve purchased a device, replace the default username and password immediately if it requires a login. You may also want to consider putting all smart devices on a separate wireless band from computers and smartphones. Most modern wireless routers are capable of broadcasting more than one network.
Rearrange and Replace Your Furniture
Not every accessibility measure requires you to completely remodel your home or invest in expensive gadgets. In some cases, even changing the alignment of your furniture can make a huge difference. Keep an eye out for any sharp turns, narrow passages, and unnecessary clutter.
Items that you expect will be used daily should be quick and easy to access, which means potentially replacing any high shelving units and cabinets with models that are a bit lower to the ground. Some furniture may also need to be raised or lowered for easier access.
Update Your Flooring
Most of us probably don’t think much about flooring beyond aesthetics. That’s because the difference between carpet, vinyl, or ceramic tile is purely visual for most of us. For people with limited mobility, that’s not the case.
Thick carpets can make it incredibly difficult for anyone in a wheelchair to get around your home. And while it certainly looks good, hardwood flooring can be a huge slipping hazard. If possible, our recommendation is to go with either vinyl planks or ceramic tile.
Since we understand that’s not always feasible, here are a few things you can do instead:
- Lay down grip mats in areas where slips and falls are likelier, such as the kitchen and bathroom.
- Look into non-slip, anti-static plastic roller mats you can put down in carpeted areas to help anyone with a wheelchair, walker, or cane get around.
- Be mindful of uneven surfaces that may present an additional hazard—consider blocking them off, if possible.
- Get rid of area rugs, or at least put them somewhere out of the way so they won’t impede mobility.
Reconsider Exits, Entrances, and the Outdoors
We already mentioned widening your door frames. Don’t just apply that to your interior doors. Look at your entrances and exits as well—and pay particular attention to the threshold.
If it’s raised even slightly above the surrounding surfaces, that’s a problem. An uneven threshold can pose a tripping hazard even for the able-bodied. For low-mobility people, they can be outright dangerous.
For outdoor spaces such as backyards, you might consider installing wood/concrete paths or a patio, as surfaces like grass and cobblestone can be quite challenging to navigate for those with limited mobility. It should also go without saying that you’ll want to remove or replace stairs wherever possible and practice extreme vigilance regarding the buildup of ice during winter.
Modify Your Kitchen
The kitchen is another major accessibility bottleneck, with high countertops, cupboards, and shelves. Many kitchens, particularly those in condominiums and apartments, are also incredibly narrow, making it difficult for anyone with limited mobility to move around. Depending on how much you want to invest, you can do any or all of the following:
- Remodel your countertops to bring them lower to the ground.
- Rearrange your cupboards so everyday items are readily accessible.
- Invest in a smaller, more shallow fridge with a bottom-mounted freezer.
- Install mechanisms on drawers and cupboards to make it easier to open and close them.
- Replace your existing appliances with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant models.
- Remove your under-sink cabinets and leave the space open.
Embrace an Open Floor Plan
You can do a great deal more than replacing and rearranging furniture if you have the funds for it. You can modify your entire home into an open floor plan, removing doors and walls to make your space easier for people to navigate. You’ll most commonly start with your kitchen, living room, and dining room.
Bedrooms, bathrooms, and offices don’t typically lend themselves well to an open floor plan, so we’d advise settling for widening your door frames and updating your doors.
While we’re on the topic of the floor plan, there are other things you should take into account from both an accessibility and a safety standpoint:
- Ensure all entryways and common areas are well-lit. Natural lighting during the day is all well and good, but the space must also be visible in its entirety at night.
- Consider adding lighting at the top and bottom of stairs/ramps. This could take the form of either overhead lights or floor lighting.
- If you notice clutter is a constant issue, consider investing in more storage space or getting rid of unnecessary possessions. Avoid throwing anything out where possible—consider donating them to a nonprofit or thrift store instead.
The challenges of aging aside, there’s really no telling when you or a loved one might find themselves disabled—either temporarily or permanently. That’s why even if everyone you know is in peak physical form, it’s always worthwhile to at least understand some of the ways you can update your home to be more disability friendly. Because you never know when you might need to remember them.