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Aging Gracefully at Home

Simple modifications enable seniors to stay in their homes

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HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, April 24, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Sturdy bars you can grab to get in and out of the tub. Wide doorways to allow easy wheelchair access to bedrooms and bathrooms. Lever door handles that replace hard-to-turn round knobs.

Such simple modifications to homes can make all the difference for elderly people, who prefer to continue living in their own homes as long as possible, instead of moving to a retirement community.

Senior advocacy groups call it "aging in place" -- staying in comfortable and familiar surroundings even if aging diminishes your ability to perform the tasks of daily routines that once came so easily.

"What people want is to be able to live in their house as long as possible, but today, houses aren't really designed to allow people to age in place," says Mary Becker-Omvig, an occupational therapist who serves as a spokeswoman for the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA).

To help make houses more senior friendly, the association and Rebuilding Together, a volunteer organization that repairs and builds homes for low-income people, today released dozens of simple and affordable home-modification ideas to help make daily living easier and safer for seniors.

They include:

  • Making sure there's access to a first-floor bathroom, if possible.
  • Using bathmats and rugs with non-skid backings, and secure rugs with double-sided tape.
  • Installing an adjustable-height or handheld shower head and an adjustable-height shower seat, if needed.
  • Turning down the hot water temperate to 120 degrees to avoid scalding.
  • Widening or clearing pathways into rooms.
  • Posting emergency numbers and a list of current medications near the phone, and making sure a phone with a cord is near the bed.
  • Trying a long-handled dustpan to reduce bending.
  • Making sure all railings are secure and sturdy, and that stairwells have railings on both sides.
  • Increasing lighting at entranceways.
  • Leaving lights on or adding motion sensors in rooms or hallways that seniors walk through after dark.
  • Making sure at least one outside entrance has no steps; use a ramp if necessary.

Of course, modifications will depend on individual needs. And it's a good idea to assess which routines or tasks prove difficult, what the resident used to do but no longer can, and which modifications would provide solutions.

AOTA says the three most common problems for seniors at home are getting in and out of the house, accessing the bathroom, and going up and down stairs.

Becker-Omvig says one-third of all home accidents involving people 65 and older could be prevented through simple modifications. And, she says, falls at home lead to more nursing-home admissions than any other cause.

As America rapidly grays -- think of those 76 million baby boomers -- Becker-Omvig offers advice to those living at home and approaching their senior years.

"Don't wait for the crisis to start thinking about planning," says Becker-Omvig," home modification/fall prevention coordinator for the Aging in Place program in Howard County, Md. "Most homeowners are simply not aware of just how much home modifications can help."

As part of the effort, Rebuilding Together plans a "national rebuilding day" Saturday, when volunteers will work on repairing and rebuilding about 8,000 homes, particularly those of the elderly and disabled.

As you would expect, most seniors want to continue to stay where they are, research indicates. A recent AARP survey, for example, found that 83 percent of older Americans want to stay in their current homes the rest of their lives.

"Despite the infirmities that accompany increased longevity, the majority of seniors can -- and do -- remain in their own homes," says a recent report from the Administration on Aging of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "The cost of maintaining that home and the ease of access to shopping, services, family and community support is crucial to the reality of aging in place."

SOURCES: Mary Becker-Omvig, M.S., occupational therapist, Aging in Place coordinator, Office on Aging, Howard County, Md., and Aging in Place spokeswoman, American Occupational Therapy Association, Bethesda, Md.; Dec. 4, 2002, Housing Options for Older Americans, Administration on Aging of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C.

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