As we get older we may begin to need some new equipment to keep us independent, mobile, comfortable and safe. There’s a lot that can be changed very easily in a home – without making it look like a hospital – to achieve just that. Some changes may need the advice of an occupational therapist – exactly where to put a grab rail, or which cushion will best serve your needs. Most are just a matter of finding the right product and making the investment. Further down the page we have made some suggestions if you need to make more permanent alterations to your home.
It’s easier to work out what might usefully help in a house if you take it one room at a time.
Starting with the Living Room … First of all – is the furniture comfortable? It may have become less so since you bought it. There are lots of sofas and chairs designed with orthopaedic needs in mind. The key to comfort and ease of movement is to make sure the furniture is high enough. Your thighs should be parallel to the ground – if your knees are higher than your thighs it’s going to take a lot of effort to get up.
If you can’t run to a new chair, then furniture raisers are a life-saver. These are blocks of wood placed under all four legs to raise the height that you sit at, which makes it much easier to get on and off. The same principle, raising the seat height, is why armchair boosters help. You can find firm or softer ones, to go on a dining chair or under the cushion of a favourite armchair.
Grab rails properly positioned provide support to get in and out of chairs, up and down steps, in and out of a shower. They don’t have to be white plastic: there are chrome, steel and oak ones too.
Then there’s lighting. While we all prefer a gentle warm light from lamps, there are some tasks that need good vision: reading, sewing, other hobbies. A bright LED light will be a life saver.
There’s plenty of room for change in the Kitchen too. Those who find standing increasingly difficult because of lack of strength in the legs, or instability, might like a perching stool. These are the right height to allow you to keep at the cooker or worktop without sitting fully – you just perch. So very many people suffer from arthritis, and there are many knives, jar openers and all sorts of other helpful gadgets that make kitchen work much easier and therefore more fun. A tablet or phone holder can be invaluable.
The Bathroom can be a hazardous place once strength is on the wane – make sure to have anti-slip flooring. You can find stools for the shower that swivel and won’t slip, a step with a handle to help you climb in and out of the bath and all sorts of long-handled washing aids for those that prefer not to bend. Toilet risers are easily installed and don’t have to look like hospital toilets. The most popular non-invasive method of making the bath accessible is a motorised cushion that pumps up to the height of the bath, you sit on it and swivel your legs in, then it gently deflates to lower you into the water. When you are done, simply press a button, and (however heavy you are) it re-inflates to raise you back to the height of the edge for easy departure.
The Bedroom is a place of rest, and it’s important to have a bed that works for you. There’s the option of an electric bed to raise or lower feet or head, or if that’s too much there are a whole host of cushions to support every body part. Of course you could just make do, piling up the pillows and cushions you have, but designers have worked hard to make orthopaedic cushions that make a huge difference….we just need to believe our comfort is worth it!
Movement-sensitive lighting is surprisingly affordable so night-time trips to the bathroom don’t need that fumbling for a light switch. You can buy touch sensitive lamps too. Some of us find dressing increasingly challenging, and again much has been designed and made to help. There are sock aids that make putting socks on no effort, grabbers and zip pulls, button hooks and dressing sticks.
The most important thing, for sanity as well as health, is to keep mobile. Ask your GP whether one stick or two, crutches or a rollator would best suit you and whatever you do, avoid falling over.
And be indulgent.. find throws, heat pads and supportive cushions and make sure you are comfortable.
Updating your home for the future
What about more permanent changes to the home?
Some changes you may need a builder for, and some you won’t.
Hallway and Stairs
If there are stairs, and they are too much for you, you can investigate the suitability of your home for a stairlift. If you are wheelchair bound, you will have considered ramps.
If you need sticks, crutches, a rollator or a wheel chair then you will need to de-clutter to make extra space. Move occasional tables and rugs if they are a trip hazard, use extra rooms if you have any unused ones. Knocking walls down between small rooms to make a larger one may appear costly, but it’s cheaper than moving house. According to the National Association of Home Builders, a five-foot by five-foot clear space in the middle of the living room is a good idea. That leaves enough room to navigate a wheelchair and get turned around properly with a rollator – backing up with anything is very tricky. Install grab bars to help you move around the house, and to help in and out of seating.
If it’s feasible to turn your shower room into a wet room, that will remove the need for doors to the shower and mean there’s no troubling lip to be stepped or rolled over. If you can, and you so wish, install a step-in bath with a door – many people like them more than the devices for lowering you in and raising you out of a normal bath. Some like more permanent flip-down shower seats rather than portable stools. Again, grab bars installed in the right place enormously increase confidence and stability.
You’ll need to consider a floor that isn’t slippery. Certain types of tile are inherently slippery and should be avoided – marble, for example. Rougher surfaced tiles are better, or anti-slip wet room flooring throughout.
Manoeuvrability and non-slip flooring may become important in a kitchen too. Lighting also makes a big difference – under cabinet lighting, task lighting, rocker switches…any lighting technician will advise. Ideally the entrance to the kitchen should be flat with no “speed bumps” between rooms. If your budget won’t allow removing door curbs within the infrastructure of the home, you can install a slope to reduce the possibility of slips and falls.
In a perfect world, the wall cabinets would be low enough to reach, or include pull-down shelves. If that’s too expensive, a good step stool with a handle for stability and non-slip feet helps. Counter tops should have rounded edges, and grab rails or fixed handles in case of a fall can reduce injury significantly.
The oven must be at the right height – many people find it increasingly difficult to bend down and reach into a hot oven as that age. Handles are easily replaced- levers instead of knobs everywhere. Levers on taps are much easier than conventional twist knobs too. A top-loading pull out dishwasher is easier than a conventional one.
Have lights installed by, near, or over all the doors of your home. This even includes those doors you don’t use very often. If your front door can have an overhang, to provide you with protection from the rain, make it so. Any exterior steps should have railings on both sides.
We could go on forever, but the main message is that if you take a room at a time and think through how it is used, and how much more easily it could be used by someone less flexible or mobile, you will soon have a long list of desirable changes. Then it’s a matter of prioritising, and finance.
Over to you…