How to make your home more age-friendly
Ruthanne Koyama retired at the age of 70 after 40 years in Service Chain Management. She has written three book in retirement: Staying Home in your 70s' 80s' and Beyond, Aging Safely At Home not in A Home, and Back Pain and Aging.
As an ageing zoomer myself (there is a difference between Boomers and Zoomers, do you know what it is?), I know I want to live what is left of my life how I want and where I want. And that is in my OWN home, not in A Home. I also recognise that as we age our needs, and capabilities change. Here, I cover some of the planning necessary to make sure we and our homes are prepared for the future.
The first prerequisite here is to recognise, accept, and consider just what our limitations might be. When you can truly do this, you will have overcome half the battle. Then we need to commit to taking some affirmative action to mitigate their effects. After we’ve recognised our limitations, we need to look at our homes and determine what things will make living with things like limited mobility even more challenging.
Our mobility is often limited as we age, and I have no doubt this will be the case no matter who we are. Heck, even Jane Fonda admits to having lost some of her mobility, and she is the exercise queen.
So while we may encounter physical mobility limitations we should not forget to manage the environmental limitations we have put in the way. When we were younger and had children and possibly grandchildren around these things did not concern us. As we age, they can become harmful to our wellbeing and make it difficult to be mobile in our home.
Stop, think, search, and look at your surroundings. Is it difficult even now to get around the furniture? Are there chairs in the way that would prevent a walker from entering? Are there small pieces of furniture that might become items we may trip over later in life? With my back issues (see my new book just out) I find that when I stand too quickly, which believe me is not quick at all, my legs are a little wobbly until I can steady myself. If there is something in my way, it will without a doubt get bumped into. Even a small bump has the ability to topple me. So making sure there is a clear path around my chair is one thing I can ensure.
I know I like to put my feet up when sitting and I have several small footstools in different rooms that allow me to do so. I am considering moving them, since they are very light, and placing them out of the way against a wall that has no traffic. Because they are very light, they move easily, which is both good and bad: if I should trip or stumble, they would not stop my fall, and they would probably slide, making me even more unsteady and causing me to fall. On the other hand, being light also means they are easy to move to where I want to sit and use them. Now, this may seem like a contradiction to my previous statement about furniture that may cause a fall if you bump into it. There is a difference between stumbling because a small movable item causes it and a piece of furniture that can cause a fall because it won’t move. Both can be hazardous to our health.
Speaking of stools, I’m sure you, like me, have step stools you use to reach high places. Well, now is time to look at what you’re using. If you have one of those two-step plastic stools with no rail or guard, it may be time to upgrade. The ones with handles, guards or rails usually fold up and take up less room than the old two-step style anyway. The old one- or two-step stools, while okay while we are young, are unsafe as we get older. I know I often feel lightheaded for no particular reason, and stepping up on one of those could cause an unexpected fall. I use my trusty, metal step stool with a guardrail. It is neither heavy nor bulky, and I can easily lift or slide it to where it is needed. I keep it tucked in the corner closet with my broom.
Next, consider your kitchen. Is it set up in a way so that all the items you use on a daily basis are easy to reach or do you have dishes, pots, pans, and even heavy serving plates placed in cupboards above your head? If so, I would suggest you move them. As we get older, holding or lifting heavy (even just slightly heavy) items becomes a challenge. When we were building our forever house, that was something I thought of, and I had the bottom cupboards changed to deep drawers and rollout shelves that could accommodate those items. I also considered that those large serving dishes were only used for special occasions when the family came. The kids could then lift them down, and if none of them were coming, I wouldn’t need those big dishes for what we would eat anyway. Who cooks a 20-pound turkey for just two people to eat? So I keep these items on the top shelves of my cupboards.
Many homes these days have walk-in pantries, which allow us to keep canned goods and boxes of food within arm’s reach. If your home, like mine, does not have a walk-in pantry, I would consider getting one of those wire-shelving units on wheels – even units that don’t have wheels can have them added. They are now in fashion, and putting it in a corner in the kitchen for holding canned goods and other everyday food items can be very helpful. If you don’t have room for one, then perhaps you have a closet nearby that could accommodate shelves for these types of items. Remember, it’s all about thinking ahead – not about today, tomorrow, or even next month, but for years down the road. These considerations are about the rest of your life and where you will live it – hopefully staying home.
Now take a look in the bathroom. Which do you prefer, a bath or a shower? Both of these could be problematic as we age. If you have a big tub, getting in and out may be difficult later on. My mother-in-law is a little bitty woman who barely stands 1.4 metres. At the best of times, getting in the tub was a problem for her, and because we didn’t consider it earlier, she now requires assistance with bathing. This I’m sure does not sit well with her or her dignity. Luckily, even in her mid-90s, she takes everything pretty much in stride. Had we thought about it earlier, we could easily have changed the tub to one of those walk-in baths available today.
The next consideration in the bathroom is accessibility; do the doors open wide enough to allow for a walker? Many new houses also have separate rooms for toilets, which often have smaller doorways and doors that swing in. If you have one of these, now may be the time to consider either removing the door or perhaps changing it to a pocket or sliding door.
You will note that I am not really covering the aspect of wheelchairs, which is because those issues add a whole new dimension to staying home that I am unfamiliar with and have not thoroughly investigated. Having said that, some of these suggestions could work should you find you require a wheelchair.
That brings us to another access issue, and this again (to a small degree) may be helpful for wheelchairs. Right now my consideration is for a walker, having experienced issues faced by my mother-in-law and my brother with their walkers. Given that most walkers have wheels, some four and others just two, these become problematic when entering or leaving a building, house, office, or even some stores. There is little you can do about places you do not own, but take a look at your front or back door. Do either of these have a threshold that would either block the movement of a walker or require it to be lifted even a little to get over? My mother-in-law's house takes a couple of steps to access the front door, so the family added a ramp so she can just walk up and down by lifting only her legs. One thing they forgot was that the ramp, being made of ¾ inch plywood, created a lip at the end that the walker would not roll over easily, and she is too frail to lift it. The solution was simple as soon as the issue came to light; now they have simply added a threshold ramp that makes it flush with the driveway and is sloped enough to meet the top of the wood with no lifting required.
The is an edited extract from Ruthanne Koyama’s book Staying Home in your 70s' 80s' and Beyond.
For more of Ruthanne Koyama’s work, please visit her blog Healthy Wealthy Aging.
If you have advice or a story to share please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo is a stock image and not of Ruthanne Koyama.