With loved ones living longer and needing more care, many families struggle with the best way to help an aging relative.
More than three-quarters of U.S. adults age 50 and older want to stay in their current homes for as long as possible, according to AARP’s 2021 “Home and Community Preferences Survey.” But a May 2020 study by the U.S. Census Bureau found that less than 10 percent of U.S. homes are "aging-ready," meaning they have a step-free entryway, a first-floor bathroom and bedroom, and at least one bathroom accessibility feature, such as a grab bar or shower seat.
Adapting your home to accommodate another’s needs is a step some are hesitant to make. But if you’re contemplating this move, consider advice from the experts who say the trend is likely to continue as the nation’s population ages.
While life in an assisted living community can be convenient as well as luxurious, not everyone wants to move simply because they are getting older. Due to increasing life expectancy combined with a multitude of positive factors for aging in our current society, such as rising education levels, more later-life work opportunities, and a dropping poverty rate, more people are aging in place now than ever. While more people are needing care each year, long-term care costs are continually rising, and some areas have seen a shortage of care available.
Reasons for choosing to age in place include wanting to stay in your loved home surrounded by your neighbors and family, as well as avoiding the prohibitive cost of senior living communities. While it may be intimidating to consider aging in your own home if it wasn’t designed for long-term care, there are many options, both temporary as well as permanent, that can help you stay in your home well past retirement. Read on for home modifications as well as assistive technologies that can help you age-in-place safely and comfortably.
Goals of Home Modification for Seniors
When creating an age friendly living space, the focus should always be on increasing and improving the following five elements:
The best time to start thinking about aging in place and home modifications is long before the need actually arises—which can happen suddenly and urgently. Ideally, people who are confident that they’re living in their “forever home” should factor their long-term care plans into their routine home improvements and repairs.
Consider the follow modifications
If a senior relies on mobility aids, such as a walker or wheelchair, to navigate through her home, widening doorways is a must-have home modification. Depending on the insulation and placement of electrical switches and outlets in the home, costs vary greatly for widening doorways.
Exterior stairs may be a challenge for seniors who are unsteady on their feet or have balance issues, so installing ramps is a necessary home modification that is well worth the cost to provide greater independence. Licensed contractors are trained in building and installing ramps of the correct height and rise for seniors.
Indoor threshold ramps are also necessary home modifications for older adults who use wheelchairs. These indoor ramps provide smooth transitions from one surface to another, making it safer to navigate throughout the home. The threshold ramps often are constructed of rubber, so they’re easily adjustable to accommodate the step or door jamb height that is involved in the transition.There are non-permanent, mobile versions of ramps available on the market that are easy to install by yourself. Another option to increase stair safety around your home is to simply add traction tape to your stairs and elevated walking surfaces.
As seniors age, they may find that their appliances are no longer in ideal locations and that their countertops and cabinetry are too high, especially if they are in a wheelchair. Professional contractors may need to come in and adjust the counter height and lower the sink, to allow for easier access from a seated position. Additionally, seniors aging in place often find it easier when microwaves are placed in microwave stands, as opposed to being at the back of the counter or in raised microwave cabinets.
Shower and Bathtub Modifications
A senior opting to age in place also should consider home modifications for the bathroom, particularly the bathtub. One option is to replace the bathtub with a walk-in shower, which provides much easier (and safer) entry and exit than a bathtub. A second bathroom modification option is to replace a traditional bathtub with a walk-in tub.
If a senior wants to keep his existing bathtub, or cannot afford to replace it, there are less expensive modifications that can be made to prevent slips and falls in the bathtub. One modification is to add a safety bar to the tub, while another is to install safety strips. Both of these simple modifications can help prevent slips and falls in the bathtub.Yet another modification for the bathtub, which is less expensive than replacing the bathtub or shower, is to purchase a bathtub transfer bench.
Transfer benches straddle the side of the bathtub, enabling seniors to sit safely on the bench while getting into the tub by lifting each leg, one at a time, over the bathtub wall. Getting into the tub while seated greatly reduces the risk of dangerous slips and falls for seniors. Some seniors who cannot spare the required bathroom floor space for bathtub transfer bench legs opt for bathtub chairs, which sit completely inside the bathtub. Seniors may be able to turn around and sit on the chair with both legs outside of the tub and then lift one leg at a time over the tub wall while seated to safely and securely get in and out of the tub unassisted.
Flooring is another consideration for older adults making home modifications with the goal of aging in place. The first step is to evaluate the home’s existing floors. If the carpet is older and shaggy, you may want to consider replacing it with new carpeting that has a shorter nap. Seniors are less likely to trip on shorter-nap carpeting, and it’s also more suitable for seniors who navigate through the home with the use of a walker or wheelchair.
Hardwood, tile, laminate, and vinyl floors are smooth and may allow for easier wheelchair maneuvering, but they also tend to be more slippery than carpeting. People often use throw rugs on these types of flooring, so be sure that you either get rid of them or securely tape them down to prevent trips and falls.
Assistive Technology Also Makes Aging in Place Safer
In addition to the many home modifications available today, assistive technology can be a great solution that is easier to implement, requiring no permanent changes to your home. From home monitoring systems that could replace a caregiver for a more independent elder such as medical alert, home monitoring, and activity monitoring systems, to assistive seating devices, there are a plethora of affordable tools for the person who wishes to increase their safety while aging in place.
Medical Alert Systems
One of the most valuable tools available to a person aging in place is a medical alert system. These provide monitoring to at-risk elders and reach out to pre-set contacts and emergency services if a fall happens, or the alarm button is pushed. These alarm systems are available as easy-to-use smartphone apps, and as wearable devices like a necklace or bracelet. The wearable styles usually connect to a home base that is easily installed on a wall or can be set on a flat surface. Many alarms have two-way speakers on them, allowing for direct communication between the wearer and their emergency contact, and some work like a doorbell, ringing an alarm in the home base when the button is pushed.
A medical alert system can be an inexpensive but life-saving tool, whether you have caregivers at home, live in an assisted living facility, or are aging in place in your home, trying to be as independent as possible.
Medical Alert Systems
While families of seniors who are aging in place may be used to checking in on their loved one regularly, in-person interaction may not be possible at this time. This can cause a lot of anxiety and stress for family members of seniors who live independently as they worry about their loved one’s safety while isolating. In addition to concerns regarding loneliness, families may worry that their loved one may have an emergency, such as a fall, and be unable to get the help they need in a timely manner.
Medical alert systems provide peace of mind for family members of seniors aging in place and make it significantly easier for seniors to get the help they need if an emergency does occur. With just the press of a button, seniors can connect with trained emergency operators. Some systems even include motion-sensing technology that automatically triggers a call to an emergency monitoring center if a fall or any other abnormal movement is detected.
If your loved one has mobility challenges or a history of falls, you’ll likely want a medical alert device equipped with automatic fall detection (though it should be noted that the technology is not foolproof). You’ll also need to consider whether your loved one is better suited for an in-home system, which is designed to only protect seniors in their home and sometimes yard, or a portable mobile device, which is intended for more active seniors and provides protection anywhere with cellular service. In any case, a durable, water-resistant device and a sufficient battery life should be top priorities for anyone looking for a medical alert system.
There are dozens of medical alert companies in the U.S., but not all companies are equal. To start, check out the devices from Medical Guardian, MobileHelp, and Life Fone. All three companies have a history of reliability and offer several different devices, including both in-home and mobile systems with and without fall detection. For an overview of even more companies and devices, read our full review of the best medical alert systems for seniors. For an easy way to compare quotes from various medical alert providers, check out eMedicalAlerts.com.
Smart Home Devices
Voice-controlled home devices such as Amazon Echo and Google Home are great for the casual user who wants assistance with automated lighting, reminders for medication and appointments, access to your media, calling your friends, and easy ordering of groceries and household products as they run out. You can also install smart doorbells at your front door that connect to Alexa and provide a variety of functions, including video monitoring, customized ringtones (including those to deter predators), and two-way conversations. These devices are easily set up, connecting to an app on your smartphone where you can set up your personalized settings.
Personal monitoring devices like the high-tech FitBit Ultra can help you keep track of your activity level, as well as how much sleep you’re getting, your water intake, and more health-related functions. If you want help from a family member in your aging-in-place mission, the TruSense system is highly acclaimed as easy to use and affordable.
Smart lighting is another excellent independence booster. If you’re like me and wake up at night to use the restroom, automatic lighting removes the stress of stumbling around until you reach the lightswitch. Easily wall-mounted cordless lights are available on the market for only a few dollars each that will light up when you walk by, and there are a multitude of systems available that provide scheduled lighting that you set up with your smartphones Alexa or Google Home apps.
For a comfortable lift getting out of your favorite armchair, consider an electric or self-powered lifting seat, which slowly tilts you forward to help you into a standing position. Often wrapped in thick memory foam, these seats can be placed on a couch, armchair, or office chair, and are comfortable to sit in for hours. Having a hand up can not only increase your independence but has health benefits too: after a long, tiring day,
sore muscles can be easily overworked by straining to get up, and anxiety about hurting yourself by trying to get up can compound exhaustion and just make you miserable. Investing in an every-day assistive device like a lifting seat can be a great idea to help keep you comfortable in your own home for as long as possible.
A Hoyer lift is a device intended to provide electrical or manual assistance getting up from a lying down position, such as from a tub or bed. Using a full-body hoyer lift might require caregiver assistance, though there are a few products available that can be self-operated according to reviews. Other types of hoyer lifts include a sit-to-stand lift, which can be an invaluable tool when a lifting seat doesn’t provide the stability that you’re looking for. These devices typically stay in one place, by your favorite seat, and help pull you to a standing position- some provide motorized lifting and you simply hold on, others require you manually pump the handles to pull yourself up, ensuring you don’t lose
If these home modifications do not provide enough assistance to enable you to live independently, it might make more sense to consider seeking out a retirement community to tour. No technology will provide the same level of care that you will find in an assisted living community, where it is standard for residents to receive assistance with all activities of daily living as needed. But, these modifications make aging in place a viable and safer option for those who do desire to age in place.