Home modifications for wheelchair users

Q: My mother will soon be using a wheelchair in her home. What should we be considering as she makes this transition?

A: This is a really great question because there are several adjustments to be made, not only by your mother, but for others who may be visiting her home.

I will only address a few potential retrofits one may take into account when getting her home ready to accommodate a wheelchair. One broad option is to undergo a full assessment of her living environment to understand where additions of grab bars and ramps, or which modifications to toilets, showers, doorways, lighting, flooring and countertops are most useful. If you email me your request, I would be happy to conduct a thorough safety and accessibility evaluation of her residence, and provide a report with my findings. Listed below are some suggested initial alterations to consider:

Entrance/Exit. Aim for no more than a 1/4” door threshold height (rubber ramps are a safe and cost-effective solution). Doorways should have a minimum 32” opening (up to 48”). Allow for easy access for a wheelchair with a level-landing—mobility ramps are convenient for the individual and others helping a wheelchair user.

Lighting. Light switches should be no more than 15-48” maximum from floor, with no obstructions in front of light switches.

Door handles. Install curved lever handles with returns. These are easy for a person to open with their elbow, fist, hand or body and beneficial for those with arthritis or limited hand dexterity. A return will prevent a purse, bag or clothing from getting snagged. Returns with an angled back prevent a person from leaning on the lever handle with their hand and falling.

Counters and sinks. Countertop height should be maximum 34”, since most wheelchair armrests are 29”. The recommended counter length is 36”. Leave a 30” minimum in front of person for wheelchair clearance . Sinks may need to be moved closer to the front edge of counter and sink height no more than 34” from floor.

Clearance. 30” x 48” will give a wheelchair occupant range required to easily maneuver and make a transfer to a sofa, bed or bench. Allow space for the person to make a 180° turn. A T-shaped space of 60” square, and a base 36” wide provides adequate space for turning. Remove obstacles such as rugs, furniture, electrical cords or waste bins.

These are a few suggestions to start with. While the focus is generally on older adults, designing and building for persons of all ages who use a wheelchair should not be dismissed. All homes should be safe, comfortable and healthy for everyone.

Other tips

- A wheelchair is one of the most commonly-used assisted devices

- Using a wheelchair allows a person to remain socially active

- Wheelchair should meet a person’s needs and environmental conditions

- Wheelchair type must be the right one for their weight and height (fit and postural support)

- Safety and durability are important considerations

Finally, know that your mother or other family members may grieve the loss of mobility. There may be feelings of anger, numbness or depression. Help your mom focus on her abilities, not what she has lost. Challenge negative-based thoughts with reality-based positive ones. Guide your mother in seeing that a wheelchair still gives her some independence and freedom to see things in a new way.

It is important for all family and friends to take this change one day at a time. A wheelchair is a new tool to keep active by finding ways to exercise the body and doing things that bring joy. Help her manage expectations and view using a wheelchair as a different mode of transportation. She is still capable and has value.

Karen Casanovas, PCC, CPCC, CLIPP is a health, wellness and certified living in place professional coach practicing in Anchorage. If you have questions write to her at info@karencasanovas.com.