Designing your home for aging in place

My mom loved her own home - a wooded, two-acre property on a rural country road. She liked caring for her home and relaxing on her small, screened porch with a view of birds at the feeder and flowers in her garden. She liked having friends and family come for visits. Her own dishes, her own bed, her own music, eating when and what she wanted.

As her vision declined and she stopped driving, she did think that it would be sensible to find a new home in town where she could walk to the library, hairdresser or grocery. Dad, on the other hand, couldn’t ever imagine that he wouldn’t be able to take care of her or that his physical or mental abilities might fail him. Planning for the future or discussions of “what if” never took place. So, when my dad died after a brief illness, not only was my mother suddenly without her husband of more than 60 years, she also had to leave her home.

Decisions had to made pretty quickly and, ultimately, she moved-in with one of my sisters, who lives in a small “walking town” with good sidewalks and services that she can make her way to even with reduced vision.

My sister modified her home – a walk-in shower with a seat in place of a high-sided bath, improved kitchen counter lighting, handrails on both sides of the stairs, improved walkways into the house from the yard. Mom now lives in a pretty nice place and she is very appreciative of my sister’s accommodations for her. But, she misses her independence – it’s just not the same as being in her own place.

The cost of buying a new “universally accessible” home or entering assisted-living may truly be out-of-reach at exactly the point that it becomes necessary and especially if it becomes necessary unexpectedly. The average Alaskan assisted living home cost is greater than $5,000 per month and nursing home average costs are greater than $20,000 per month. A further challenge in Alaska is that there is very little appropriate housing of either type available.

Remodeling your home, cabin or apartment following what are called Universal Design (UD) principles may give you an affordable way to stay in your home is for as long as possible.

Applying UD principles can make your home more valuable since UD isn’t just about making it easier for seniors; these are aesthetically pleasing design features that make a home appropriate for everyone – young or old, short or tall, less or more mobile. Considering the typical costs of even short-term assisted living, any investment in remodeling with UD is likely to be money well spent.

Universal Design features may include adding accessories like grab bars, bathing seats, sliding pocket doors or replacing turning door knobs with easy to open lever type handles. Kitchens can get a makeover with pull-out rather than reach-into cabinet designs. Paint, trim and fixtures can provide contrasting colors on counters, light switches, walls, stairs and cabinets for improve visibility. Putting sensors on lights inside and outside, widening doorways and halls and adding ramps or treads to stairs can greatly improve mobility and safety.

For older Alaskans who require assistance with their activities of daily living, some of these modifications may qualify as medical deductions on their income taxes. There is also state and federal assistance for financially qualified households. The Alaska Housing Finance Corporation funds several non-profit organizations like Access Alaska to help residents with home modification services throughout Alaska. Assistance may be in the form of low interest loans or grants available for homeowners or apartment and housing landlords.

My mother’s situation is not at all uncommon. And, for the increasing number of us who are starting to get those AARP and senior discounts, these challenges are just around the corner.

Despite knowing with great certainty that we will all lose some of our abilities as we age, we still have a hard time imagining ourselves at that point and just what it will mean. Planning now can make the difference between continuing to enjoy your independence or being forced to leave not just your home but a piece of your heart.

Leslie Shallcross is a registered dietitian and associate professor for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service in Anchorage. Art Nash is the Energy and Housing Specialist for the UAF Cooperative Extension. Contact him at 474-6366 for more details on Universal Design principals, environmental modifications and remodeling tips for Alaska.

AARP-suggested universal design modifications

For limited lifting or flexibility

• Install lever faucet handles or single lever faucets that are easy to turn.

• Choose u-shaped drawer handles for cabinets and drawers that are easier to grasp.

• Consider decorative grab bars in the shower or by the toilet and tub

• Replace standard light switches with rocker switches that are easier to use.

For limited mobility

• Install a bath/shower seat or tub with a transfer bench for getting in and out of tub.

• Use transition wedges at door thresholds to avoid tripping.

• Give sidewalks and driveways a textured surface to increase traction and stability.

• Use handrails on both sides of stairways.

For limited vision

• Purchase appliances with large print controls.

• Install lighting near outside walkways, stairs, and entrances.

• Use nightlights where appropriate.

• Install under-the-cabinet lights, or task lighting, over kitchen counter work areas.

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