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Parent Trap

Boomers Help Mom and Dad Avoid a Home's Potential Pitfalls

Baby Boomers may dream of owning a second home as they head into their retirement years. But instead of caring for a vacation house, adult children often find themselves helping an aging mom and dad avoid the safety pitfalls of the family home.

There’s no doubt where seniors want to be as they age. The majority of seniors polled in recent industry surveys—typically 90 percent—say they want to stay at home. But in AARP’s Are Americans Talking with Their Parents About Independent Living: A 2007 Study Among Boomer Women, two-thirds of those surveyed said they are concerned about their parents’ ability to live independently as they get older, with 43 percent being very concerned and 26 percent somewhat concerned.

“Too often changes aren’t made until someone has had a stroke or other type of condition that begins to impair their mobility.”—Peter Bell, National Aging in Place Council

It’s a legitimate fear. “Many seniors and their families don’t think about the fact that homes must adapt to the changing needs of seniors as they age until an accident
happens,” says Chris Capobianco, owner of the Home Instead Senior Care office serving Bergen County, New Jersey.

“There are many potential pitfalls that we’ve seen during the home safety reviews that our company conducts before starting service in a client’s home. Our reviews cover 50 different items throughout a home including the entrance, living areas, kitchen, bedroom, bathroom and stairways. Important safety areas to highlight in a senior’s home run the gamut from accessibility to lighting to trip and fall hazards. A lack of attention to those details can jeopardize an older adult’s ability to remain at home,” Capobianco explains.

Many home safety improvements are simple and inexpensive, experts say. Convincing seniors, on the other hand, is another story. Danise Levine, assistant director of the IDEA Center at the SUNY (State University of New York) Buffalo School of Architecture, said that denial often comes into play with seniors.

“We see a lot of seniors who don’t want to admit they’re getting older so they don’t want to make changes in their homes,” Levine says. “Secondly, consumer education is an issue. If older adults do need help, they often don’t know where to go or how much things cost.”

“Important safety areas to highlight in a senior’s home run the gamut from accessibility to lighting to trip and fall hazards.”—Chris Capobianco, Home Instead Senior Care

Those issues can result in seniors’ adapting behavior to their environment, creating a potentially dangerous situation, says Levine, whose IDEA Center is dedicated to improving the design of environments and products by making them more usable. “If a senior has problems getting off the toilet,” Levine warns, “he could develop a several-step process of using a window sill, shower curtain and towel bar to get up.” However, a window sill and towel bar will eventually pull away and break, and a shower curtain will tear under the strain, creating the potential for an accident.

Unfortunately, many home makeover changes are responsive rather than proactive, notes Peter Bell, president of the National Aging in Place Council, a Washington-based advocacy group dedicated to helping seniors remain at home. “Too often changes aren’t made until someone has had a stroke or other type of condition that begins to impair their mobility,” Bell says. “It’s a shame, too, because that’s a difficult time to be making a renovation.”

Bell adds that it’s important for a senior-care professional to conduct a home review to identify various safety pitfalls from poor lighting to the need for adaptive devices in a home. The attached checklist includes various potential hazards to look for in a home. While many fixes are simple and inexpensive, others might involve a remodeling project to help a senior remain at home.

“That first, important step is to make an objective review of what needs to be done to keep them at home,” Capobianco says. “It’s one of the most important services that Home Instead Senior Care provides.”


Look and See Signs

A Home Safety Review and Checklist

Seniors and their families might want to evaluate the following when performing a home safety review:

Examine dark pathways, corners and other areas where seniors regularly walk or read. Make sure all areas of the home have adequate lighting. Timed and motion-sensor lights outdoors can illuminate potentially dangerous pathways. Inside, consider Ott-Lites, which provide a high-intensity beam for doing detail work. Make sure that hallways and stairs are properly lit.

Avoid monochromatic color schemes. Contrast can help seniors with failing eyesight better navigate their homes. Large red and blue buttons over hot and cold water faucet controls will help prevent dangerous mistakes. A dark green or brown toilet seat and vinyl tape around the shower will make those fixtures more easily distinguished. Kitchen countertops should contrast with floors as well.

Look for ways to reorganize. Mom always put the black stew pot under the stove to keep the kids from breaking it. Perhaps now it belongs on a shelf beside the stove. And who says the eggs must go in the egg tray of the refrigerator? Perhaps it’s easier for dad to handle them if they’re stored in the meat tray. If that hallway table, which has always been a permanent fixture, is becoming a dangerous obstacle, relocate it.

Look behind closed doors. Many seniors will close off parts of a house they no longer use. Be sure to check those areas regularly for mold or water damage. Don’t close vents to crawl spaces.

Look for ways to simplify your senior’s life. Talk to your parents about why and how they do things then look for ways to simplify their lives. If your Mom’s immaculate floors are now regularly dirty, think about how she’s been doing that job all these years and offer options. For instance, rather than a heavy mop and bucket, investigate lightweight, all-in-one mops. If your senior is replacing appliances, look for smooth-top stoves and refrigerators with water and ice on the outside. Change doorknobs to levers or purchase grips that can go on conventional knobs. Convert single-bulb light fixtures to multiple bulbs so seniors still have light when one bulb burns out.

Consider security. Think about the potential dangers that lurk within your loved one’s home. Lock-in switches on thermostats and stoves will keep seniors with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease from harming themselves. Help them manage in their environment by installing a cordless intercom.

Keep an eye out for damage. Watch for signs that a senior is adapting his or her behavior to the environment. Look for towel bars or window sills that are pulling away or shower curtains that have torn from seniors using them to grab onto.

Look for ways to make entries safe. Make sure that railings into a home are in good repair and that steps and sidewalks are not damaged. Or eliminate steps altogether. Make sure that doors into a home can be set to stay open for carrying groceries and other items in and out. Install remote-control locks.

Is clutter taking over? Messy conditions and broken items are important warning signs. Remove area rugs and stacks of newspapers and magazines, or other potential obstacles.

Contact a professional senior-care service, such as Home Instead Senior Care, which can conduct a home safety review and serve as a second set of eyes for older adults.

This list was adapted from the home safety checklist developed by Home Instead Senior Care and enhanced in cooperation with the SUNY Buffalo School of Architecture IDEA Center, the National Association of Home Builders—Remodelers CAPS (Certified Aging in Place Specialists), the National Aging in Place Council and aging-in-place consultant Louis Tenenbaum.