March 5, 2019

Creating an aging-friendly home

As we age, everyday tasks can get a little more challenging, especially when chronic health conditions start to take a toll on the body. But with the right tools and planning, you can make your home more aging-friendly, reducing your risk of accidents and ensuring that you can stay in the home you love as long as possible.

“Be proactive,” urges Nancy Ninman, NP, of UW Health’s Movement Disorders Clinic. “It’s all about prevention. It doesn’t take but one fall, and all of a sudden your world changes, so think about proactive measures you can take in your 60s or early 70s, when you’re not as apt to fall.”

How to make your home safer as you age

Ninman shares these tips to boost your home’s safety quotient:


Cut down on clutter.

“You don’t really think about that stack of clothing that you left by the end of the bed or the pile of magazines on the floor, but if you need to get up at night, those things can be easy to trip on,” she notes. Make sure electrical cords are tucked safely out of the way.

Add nightlights.

“Lighting is a good thing,” Ninman says. “If you get up at night, which tends to happen more as we get older, and all of a sudden your vision is not so great, why not have a nightlight on in the bathroom to make sure you can see safely where you’re going?”

Make door knobs and sink taps easier to use.

“Turning door handles can be difficult if you have problems with arthritis, so look for handles you can just push down instead of grabbing and turning,” she says. “There are options that may take the stress off of joints.” You can also cover a knob with a plastic child-proof cover to give you something larger to grasp. “When you’re grabbing and having to make a smaller fist, that’s sometimes more painful,” she notes. The same principle also applies to sink taps — it’s often easier on sore hands to push or raise a lever instead of twisting a knob.

In the living room

Ditch the throw rugs.

“Do it when your agility and your safety on your feet starts to indicate that you should get rid of them,” Ninman advises. Mobility issues, vertigo, peripheral neuropathy (which affects sensation in the feet), or visual impairments can all make rugs a tripping hazard.

Consider your chairs.

Chairs with arm rests are best. “Sometimes you just need something to push off of when you’re standing up,” she notes.

In the kitchen

Reorganize your cupboards for ease.

“Move things that you use almost every day, like cooking pots, down to a level that’s reachable instead of something that requires reaching above your head or getting on a step stool,” Ninman suggests. Do the same with cupboards in other parts of the house.

Choose the right chairs.

Avoid kitchen chairs on rollers, which can be a safety hazard, and look for chairs with arm rests.

In the bedroom

Adjust your bed height.

You should be able to easily get in and out of bed. Your bed is too low if your knees are above your hip when you’re sitting on the bed’s edge, and too high if your legs don’t reach the floor when you sit. You can adjust the height of an existing bed by using bed risers or a lower-profile mattress.

Add bed rails if you need them.

Bed rails can offer additional support or keep you from falling out of bed if that’s a concern.

In the bathroom

Pick the right toilet height.

Ideally, your knees will be at a 90-degree angle when you’re sitting. “The next time you need to replace a toilet, look for a higher toilet versus the ones that sit lower to the ground,” Ninman suggests. A toilet seat riser can also make it easier to get on and off an existing toilet. This can also be a good temporary measure if you’re recovering from a procedure like knee replacement surgery, she notes.

Install a grab bar.

These can give you more stability in the shower or while getting on and off the toilet.

In the home office

Use a bigger computer mouse.

“For patients with Parkinson’s who have tremor, using something really small and fine like a regular mouse can be difficult, so I recommend a larger mouse that fits under the palm of the hand. These can be used with less defined motion,” Ninman explains.

Get a stylus pen for your devices.

This can make it easier to hit small buttons on your cell phone, iPad or other devices. “It gives you a better sense of control,” she notes.

Buy smarter

Choose a one-level home when you can.

If you decide to downsize into a new home, look for a space that will make life easier in the long-term. “Maybe buy a condo or home that’s all on one level, with a laundry room on the same level instead of in the basement,” she says.

Pick an easy-to-get-in car.

“When you purchase your next car, think about whether in 10 years from now, will you still be able to get in and out of your SUV,” Ninman says.

Buy smaller.

Instead of that massive-sized laundry detergent from Costco, consider an easier-to-lift bottle or divide larger portions into smaller containers.

Beware of used medical equipment.

It can be tempting to buy expensive assistive devices, such as walkers, wheelchairs and motorized scooters, second hand, but it’s important to get a device that’s sized properly for your body. “Because people don’t want to spend money, sometimes they use free or cheap equipment that puts them at risk because it’s not fitted to their height,” Ninman notes. “I’m all for free, but I’m also all for safe. I see so many people walking with walkers that are either set way too high or too low for them. If you’re using a walker, you should be able to stand inside, and the walker should be at the point where your hands rest at your sides.”

Hire help.

“It can be difficult to age, and everybody wants to stay in their home, and there are a lot of people who can do that with the appropriate space and with appropriate help,” she says. “It’s OK to hire for lawn work, shoveling and cleaning. Sometimes pride or money gets in the way, but people can stay in their homes longer if they’re proactive, put a little bit of cash into it, and accept that some of these things can actually be quite beneficial in the long term.”