The thought of selling the family home and moving into an assisted-living residence can be upsetting for many seniors. Being aware of, and dealing with home safety issues can help make staying at home safely, a reality.
contrasting light switch for home safety Contrasting light switch

Lori Molnar graduated in Environmental Gerontology from Ryerson Polytechnic University and has 25 years of design experience as an Environmental Gerontologist. Lori has a profound understanding of the physiological, psychological and emotional effects of aging. As a designer, she knows how good design can make life more comfortable and safer for aging clients.

I attended a seminar by Lori recently. Here are the top ten home safety tips – from my point of view – among many that Lori presented to us.

1. Where should all the light switches be?

About 32 inches above the floor, to make turning on lights comfortable for a senior with restricted reach. Use a contrasting color for the switch plate or install illuminated switches to make it easier to find a switch in the dark.

 2. Where should all the wall sockets be?

24 inches above the floor. The norm is 10 inches from the floor, but 2 feet up would help a senior to avoid bending and reaching far down behind furniture. The building code does not limit how high you can place a receptacle above the finished floor. Positioning restrictions apply in kitchens and bathrooms.

 3. Which way should the bathroom and bedroom door swing?

Consider rehanging the doors to swing into the hall. This will prevent a senior who falls against the door from blocking entry to the room. Even if the door is locked, it will be easy to remove the hinge pins to provide quick access for you, a caregiver or EMI. I think this is a critical senior safety measure – and so easy to overlook.

4. What material should you use on the bathroom floor?

Avoid polished stone or ceramic tile at all costs. The ideal flooring would be a cushioned sheet vinyl with a non-slip surface. Cushioned vinyl may help avoid fracture in the event of a fall. You also could use carpet tiles with a non-slip back.

5. What kind of handles and faucets should you use?

Replace door knobs with lever handles. Change dual faucets with a rotating knob to a single-lever mixing faucet. Switching cabinet knobs to straight handles will make life easier for an elder with limited hand strength, possibly because of osteoarthritis.

6. How much additional lighting will you need?

If we’re over 70, we need three to five times more light than we required in our forties. Seniors’ eyes lose their ability to discern contrast with age – and contrast is often the first signal that there is a stair or a change from one floor surface to another. Install bathroom fixtures that have several bulbs; it’s not likely they all would burn out at once. However, if the senior has cataracts or glaucoma, the glare of very bright light may impair vision, so be sure to use frosted bulbs and fixtures with light-diffusing bulb enclosures.

7. What is the best assist grip for home safety around the bathtub?

An extensible pole with a non-slip pad top and bottom. The senior can place it wherever it is most convenient. That might be between the toilet and the tub for assistance using both facilities. Much better than having to bend and reach across the tub for a grab bar. Also, the pole permits the senior to grip at any height and applies their weight straight down into the floor for security. Any wall-mounted grab bars must be securely fastened to wall studs. If the senior grabs for the bar while falling, the bar will have to bear the person’s entire weight.

8. Where should the washer and dryer be?

If you are doing a remodeled kitchen, consider using a 24-inch refrigerator and stove to provide space for a combined washer/dryer in the kitchen. They are common in Europe. What’s the point? To avoid a journey down the basement stairs with a load of laundry.

9. How should you finish stairs?

Polished or urethane-finished wood without a properly secured runner is a potential hazard. If you use a runner, install it without underlay or use a thin, very high-density underlay to avoid a squishy, unstable carpet surface.

10. What if the senior can’t climb into the bathtub?

A walk-in or roll-in shower stall is a better choice than a walk-in bathtub. The shower stall should have a minimal glass spray panel and no shower door.

Why a shower stall and not a walk-in tub? Walk-in tubs must be filled with 40 to 80 gallons of warm water while the user is sitting naked in the tub for about 10 minutes. The tub must drain while the user sits in it, naked and shivering. And a walk-in tub may require a larger water heater tank.

Note that we lose our sensitivity to small changes in water temperature as we age, so there is some risk in sitting in a tub as it fills with water that may be too hot.

In summary: Many of the changes that can improve home safety and make a home more amenable to an aging person require just small adjustments, not a major renovation.


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