Minor home modifications may produce huge benefits

Never before have there been so many tools available to older adults in Alaska for improving the safety of their home. Alaska has one of the fastest aging populations per capita in the nation, and the majority of Alaskans want to age in place like the rest of the country. However, the challenges are different in Alaska and they can make growing old in a single-family home especially difficult, according to Karla Zervos, who is a volunteer coordinator for the North Star Council on Aging Fairbanks Senior Center’s Helping Hands Home Modifications Program.

She said minimal light conditions can exacerbate vision impairments common to aging eye conditions, such as floaters, cataracts, glaucoma and macular degeneration.

“Low light levels lead to misjudging the built environment. So, stairs, bathing areas, door thresholds and flooring transitions are common causes for slips, trips, and falls,” Zervos told Senior Voice. “Long winters make outdoor activities treacherous for older adults and increase indoor occupancy in homes that were designed for young able-bodied families.”

Another issue is that rural homes outside of municipalities in Alaska are not required to meet minimal building codes for structural, electrical and plumbing safety.

“These same rural areas also have limited health and emergency care options,” said Zervos. Another issue is that the costs for home modifications in rural areas are disproportionately higher than in the rest of the state.

COVID complications

Due to the COVID pandemic, many projects have been restricted to exterior work. Over the summer, there was a focus on decks, stairs, steps, handrails and ramps because these projects did not involve entering a person’s home.

“Older adults are more susceptible to COVID-19 and often have underlying health conditions associated with aging. So, we are cautious for the health of our workers as well as older homeowners,” said Zervos, who is also an instructor for The National Association of Home Builders Certified Aging in Place Program.

There are hundreds of home checklists that come from organizations such as AARP, homemods.org, and The National Association of Home Builders Certified Aging in Place Program. However, Zervos said each home, family and individual situation is unique.

“The best advice will come from someone who is trained as a professional and specializes in home assessments or home audits for fall prevention, home safety, accessibility and home health care. Depending on each community’s resources this could be an occupational therapist, NAHB Certified Aging in Place Specialist, hospital discharge services, or other service provider with professional training,” said Zervos.

As the pandemic continues, more individuals have been paying more attention to their home’s deficiencies. Subsequently, this has increased the demand for home remodeling and repairs.

“The cost of building materials, especially pressure-treated, outdoor lumber, has increased 15 to 30% every month this construction season,” Zervos said. “Delivery of available building supplies has been delayed, which impacts project scheduling, cost and completion.”

The North Star Council on Aging Fairbanks Senior Center’s Helping Hands Home Modifications Program primarily uses volunteers to do home audits that lead to service requests for safety, accessibility, and fall prevention modifications. The volunteers perform the modifications and ask homeowners to reimburse the center for their project materials or make a donation to keep the program going. The Helping Hands Home Modifications Program makes homes safer and more accessible. It focuses on small, simple projects that improve access, health and safety. It might be something as simple as adjusting a toilet seat’s height.

Brian Hornsby is with Taylored Restoration, which has branches in Anchorage, Wasilla and Fairbanks, and he said the pandemic has affected business. “Home visits have been limited due to current world conditions, especially when it involves the most susceptible members of the community,” Hornsby told Senior Voice. “We do not perform inspections, but can provide service after an occupational therapist creates a list of necessary modifications.”

Bob Manwaring, who is the Business Development Director for Taylored Restoration, said many older adults may not realize that just changing out throw rugs can have a big impact.

“Rugs on the floor can make you trip,” Manwaring said. “The doors might need to be widened for a wheelchair. All these enhancements are going to improve an older adult’s life. We have done jobs that have helped seniors and these little things make a difference.”

Small changes are big

Manwaring, who is 62, said he has been in the shower and suffered dizziness and he learned a grab bar was much more important than he had previously recognized. He said small bath tub modifications can make a significant difference. Another issue is flooring. Many individuals may have flooring that is slippery and it can be replaced with something that can reduce slippage.

“Most people buy the fire extinguisher after the fire starts. People need to plan ahead to prevent falls and mishaps. Ask yourself when looking around your home -- do you see any tripping hazards or safety issues that could lead to a fall?” said Gary Sloane, who is the Director of Accessible Homes, Inc. in Anchorage. The bathroom and kitchen account for the most falls at home, according to Sloane. However, there are simple things you can do like adding night lights, removing throw rugs, or taping them down with double stick tape. Sloane also recommends placing non-slip pads in tubs and showers.

Sloane said his company provides full home assessments at this time, but when the pandemic started, that was not the case.

“We have been in business for 30 years and March 2020 was absolutely the worst month,” Sloane said. “By the second week of April, things started turning around and we started doing work again and by August we had a 30 year record month of sales.”

He said currently all the contractors he knows are having a great year as people are not going on vacations, eating out, or shopping, but rather they are having work done to their homes, trying to make them nicer and safer.

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