Home & Garden

About the House: Aging In Place

By Matt Cantor
Thursday June 18, 2009 - 07:02:00 PM

I’m not sure how Led Zeppelin is going to sound to me when I’m 80 but I’m determined to find out. I really don’t mind the idea of getting older. Well, maybe I do mind some of the changes in my body, like my gradual waning of flexibility, the loss of my close-up vision and having to get up too often at night. Aging is annoying but I have no desire to be 14 again. I was miserable. I didn’t like myself. I had few friends and the world seemed terrifying. Age has opened my life more and more and the price of the trip is more than worth it. I understand that I will lose more and more of the capabilities that I used to take for granted but oh well. Better prepare for the road ahead. 

There are a lot of things we can do to make our lives safer and more pleasant as we age and many related to our homes and how we live in them. The most important may be the avoidance of falls. According to the National Association for Home Care and Hospice, falls are the leading cause of death among older Americans, so preventing falls should be a high priority. But how do we do that? 

First we must look at what we’re walking upon. What are our floors and passageways like? What are the surfaces? Can we see them sufficiently? What can we hold onto? 

Loose materials like rugs are treacherous. If you have loose rugs, particularly on stairways, consider removing them in favor of another material or leave them bare. If they can be secured in place, this will improve your safety and that of your partner (there’s a good excuse you can use: “I don’t really need these changes, but my wife is such a klutz.” Whatever works). Removing clutter to open up walking paths is also advised. Handrails on stairs are extremely important and, while we may not notice their absence when we are younger, they become essential as we age and our balance decreases.  

Handrails are required on all stairways having four or more steps but you may find that a shorter run of stairs that you use frequently would benefit from one as well. These are easy additions that don’t cost much. Similarly, grab bars in bathrooms, particularly in the shower or tub can prevent falls. A friend of mine had all but ceased taking showers in his later years (though he managed in his creative way to find alternative methods) and missed it. Not wanting to admit his limitation, he avoided bringing it up for some time but clearly needed a little help. When the bars went in, it changed his life. He began dressing up again and I think there was even some resurgence in his social life. This may sound dramatic but it’s true what they say; It is the little things in life. 

Small changes in floor level can be very hard to negotiate when we’re older. A small bump that might have gone unnoticed in our youth can be sufficient to make us trip and fall and a fall can send us to hospital. Take a look at thresholds and other small changes in level (or big changes in level). There are often simple ways to reduce or eliminate bumps and level changes at low cost. A handyman or contractor can help.  

Since our hearing decreases as we age there are things we can do to augment this limitation as well. A wide array of devices exists to help us hear things we need to hear. Now, smoke detectors are really, really loud so if you have any hearing at all, they’re just fine (though louder ones can be found), but did you know that there are smoke detectors for the deaf that flash a bright light or strobe? This same technology is also available for carbon monoxide testers and doorbells. Life gets safer (and more fun) when you can hear again (or don’t have to hear to get to the door). 

Devices exist that will shake the bed if smoke is detected or simply as an alarm to wake you in the morning. One carrier of such devices can be found at www.azhearing.com but several others are out there on the Internet as well. 

As we age, our eyes become less light sensitive and, while we may adapt, an increase in wattage can be a real boon, increasing our safety while making cooking, reading or whatever we like to do, easier and more fun. One great way to do this is to replace conventional light bulbs with compact fluorescents. These are now available in very high wattages and are extremely easy to find and install. If you replace a typical 60-watt bulb with 23-watt fluorescent, you’ll actually have more light and less heat, making your home safer from fire and cheaper to light (for many of us, lighting is the largest part of our electrical bill).  

I’ve recently seen compact fluorescent bulbs with ratings as high as 200 watts (which is like 600-700 watts of light) and while I wouldn’t recommend them for a typical fixture due to the heat, I would suggest the 100-watt version for someone who has a one bulb fixture on their kitchen ceiling and has ceased production of their world-famous Abgousht (say it isn’t so!). More lighting makes you less likely to fall and more likely to do the things you like to do. Compact fluorescents decrease the heat in fixtures, cords and the wiring of the house itself and, thereby, increase safety. 

If you’re finding yourself imbalanced or needing to use a step ladder to get things that you use on a regular basis, consider moving those things so that they’re easier for you to reach. This can include cabinetry on the kitchen wall (yes, it may be possible to lower the cabinets themselves), a thermostat for heat, cooking items on high shelves or the cuckoo clock. Whatever you’ve been reaching or climbing high for can represent a health hazard and would be best moved down to where you can get it easily. 

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission puts out a nice free booklet called Safety for Older Consumers that covers some of these items and quite a few more. Call them in Oakland at 637-4050 if you’d like a copy (you can also teletype them at 800-638-8270). 

The Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, while specializing in the needs of the disabled, and not necessarily the elderly, are a wonderful resource for solutions to issues of decreased mobility, sight or hearing. Years ago, I heard from an expert on the disabled that, if we live long enough, all of us will become disabled. That really stuck for me. 

I met a delightful fellow yesterday, an art historian of some repute (isn’t Berkeley grand?). He was 90 and could barely take time away from working on his umpteenth book to talk about his house. I liked that. As we age, we don’t need to decrease. We can flame and roil to the last but, if we take a little time to make sure our environment is safe, we might get to enjoy more years of activity, mobility and zest in the best possible health.