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Remodeling with Seniors in Mind

Our houses are full of steps: steps up to the front door, steps down to the basement, steps up to the bedrooms, steps everywhere! Strange how those steps seem to get a little steeper and a little higher with each passing decade.

As our bodies mature, steps evolve from being a convenient way to get up and down to becoming a gauntlet that challenges us on good days and stops us short on bad days. For those unfortunate enough to have experienced a serious fall or for those in a wheelchair, steps may be the difference between being able to live independently in their own home and having to move to a senior living facility.

When many homes were originally designed, little attention was paid to the physical needs of seniors. Now nearly everyone has to consider remodeling their home at some point to accommodate their own needs or that of a parent.

Unless you are planning to move soon, you too should be looking at your home's design and investigating ways to make it safer and more conducive to long-term independence.

To get the biggest bang for your buck, start early and adopt a long-term approach. Every time you remodel, update or improve your home, look at the project as an opportunity to make the home a partner in your quest for long-term independence.

For example, if your front walkway is starting to break up and you are considering replacing it, go a bit further with your planning. Is there any way to eliminate some or all of the steps in front of your home? Many homes have a lovely curving walk that winds from the driveway to the front porch, where it ends at a couple of steps. What if you were to have the repair firm re-grade the walk slightly? In many cases a gentle slope in the walk will entirely eliminate the need for steps.

Done as part of a routine improvement or replacement, this new feature is not likely to cost you many, if any, additional dollars. Just as important, the new walk will look like it belongs. It will look like it was meant to be that way, unlike those wheelchair ramps that people have to resort to when they haven't planned ahead.

Remember, wherever you have steps, you need good solid railings. Many original builder railings are little more than decorations. Any time you need a railing repaired, stop and think for a moment. Is it easy to grab? Is it long enough so that you can get a firm grip on it before taking the first step up? What about stepping down? If you were to fall and grab it for support, would it hold your body's full weight? Most railings don't really pass muster. Think about replacing an inadequate railing with one that really does the job.

Here are answers to some of the most common questions about improving mobility throughout the home:

I don't use a wheelchair. Why should I bother making my home wheelchair accessible?
Eliminating steps not only helps those in wheelchairs, it makes things easier for everyone. Think about it. Wouldn't it be easier if you could roll your luggage right from the living room to the car? Wouldn't it be great to take the grandkids for a walk and wheel the stroller right into the house? Imagine how much easier grocery shopping would be if you could unload groceries into a small cart and wheel them right into the kitchen. Think wheels, not wheelchairs!

How do I eliminate all the steps in my home without tearing things down and starting over?
Unfortunately, this is a common situation. Your best bet is to arrange rooms so that it is workable to live independently, even if only temporarily, on one level.

This may mean, for example, rethinking the laundry routine. If your laundry equipment is down in the dark depths of the basement, consider creating a laundry alcove or closet near the kitchen. If your household has shrunk over the years, you might find that you could do fine with a compact washer and dryer pair that fits into a closet.

If you don't have a bedroom on the same floor as the kitchen, investigate ways to convert the living room or dining room into a temporary bedroom. Often, the easiest way to do this is to install pocket doors that allow one of these spaces to be closed off and made private. In the meantime, the doors will give you more flexibility when entertaining.

Many homes only have a half-bathroom on the main floor. The next time you do any remodeling or major interior repairs, consider converting the half-bathroom to a full bathroom by adding a shower. A shower takes up less space than a bathtub, and it is much easier for most folks to use.

What else can I do to ensure that I can live easily in my own home for as many years as possible?
Two other things to consider are how easy your halls are to navigate and whether your floor coverings are appropriate.

Many older homes have very narrow hallways. This is often compounded by a lifetime's accumulation of treasures. Cramped halls are difficult for anyone needing the assistance of a firm hand, a walker, or a wheelchair.

Under foot, you want to steer away from deeply padded carpets, which can impede or trip someone with an unsteady gate. Slippery floors are leading culprits in independence robbing falls. Throw rugs, especially on slick floors, can also be a real hazard.

David Hollies is a remodeling industry educator and consultant. He is also the founder of Washington D.C.-based Home Connections, Inc.

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