According to the Center for Disease Control, 1 in 4 US adults has some sort of disability, with 13.7% of people having a mobility disability. Similarly, 8.5 million seniors use some sort of mobility device in their everyday lives. These statistics show us that accessibility and the ability to move about freely is an important issue to a large population of Americans — but are conventional homes accessible to them? Accessibility in the home isn’t just about practicality, it’s about safety and independence, and accessible renovations can increase an individual who uses a mobility aid’s ability to live comfortably at home longer, to remain safe, and to preserve a sense of autonomy. A sense of autonomy and independence can have incredibly positive effects on mental health in seniors, which are one of the most under-reporting populations when it comes to mental health symptoms.
When it comes to accessibility remodeling for seniors and individuals with mobility disabilities, the process will typically fall to the caretakers or loved ones. This is why it’s important to know what can and should be remodeled, what can be DIYed, and what should be left to the professionals. This guide will discuss different types of accessibility renovations for each room in the house, as well as the purposes that they can serve for people who need mobility aids. These renovations can improve the quality of life and overall safety of loved ones living with a mobility impairment.
Home Safety Checklists for Seniors and People With Mobility Disabilities
Being able to maneuver around your home isn’t just practical — it’s a matter of personal safety. For seniors and other individuals with mobility disabilities, being able to integrate fire safety features and other emergency safety measures independently is an important part of preserving their autonomy, and being able to feel safe in their own homes. This is why accessible renovations to the home can be a crucial part of aging in place, or caretaking for a person with a mobility disability. Common accessible renovations include:
- Stairlifts or ramps: Ramps can help people who use wheelchairs navigate outdoor stairs leading in or out of the home, while automatic stairlifts can create mobility between interior levels.
- Widened doorways: Widening doorways to accommodate wheelchairs or scooters can help mobility aid users navigate from room to room without assistance.
- Bright lighting: Brighter lighting can increase visibility for seniors, which can help them better locate objects or read appliances or print. Brighter lighting can also increase visibility at night, which can decrease fall risks for seniors.
- Loud or visual alarms: Because hearing and vision deteriorate with age, having alarms with louder alerts, or alarms that have a combination of visual and noise alerts, is important to keep seniors safe. Smoke alarms, carbon monoxide detectors, security systems, and other alarms can all be modified or upgraded to be louder or include a visual element.
- Smart security systems: Smart security systems often have visual and noise alerts. This is ideal for seniors who may have trouble hearing or seeing. Smart security systems can also often be controlled via remote or touch, which can make it easier for seniors to change settings.
- Stair railings: Trouble balancing and sudden fall risks can also be included under mobility disabilities. Sturdy stair railings can help individuals who are able to walk, but still need the assistance of a cane or crutches, to navigate up and down stairs safely.
- Easy-to-read thermostats and meters: Easy-to-read meters and thermostats can increase visibility for seniors with vision impairment, and help individuals stay comfortable in their homes. Large print meters or digital displays are both accessible, easy to read options.
Bathrooms can be one of the least accessible rooms in the home for seniors and individuals with mobility disabilities, especially in older homes. Cramped can be impossible to navigate in a wheelchair, and deep-set tubs can make it hard to get in and out of the bath or shower. The following renovations can make the bathroom more accessible for seniors and individuals who use mobility aids:
- Roll-under sinks: Roll under sinks have space underneath the sink specifically designed for wheelchair accessibility. These sinks allow people who use wheelchairs access to the sink, vanity, and counter space without needing to leave their chairs.
- Walk-in tubs: Individuals with mobility impairments may use walk-in tubs to mitigate fall risks when getting in and out of the tub. Walk-in tubs have a sealed door on the side and can be installed in virtually any bathroom with a tub.
- Bathtub lifts: A bathtub lift is a device that can lift individuals out of their chair or scooter and into the bathtub. This can allow chair users to autonomously get into the tub, or provide help to caretakers. These lifts can either be placed in the tub or outside of it, depending on the model.
- Walk-in showers: Another advantageous renovation for people who use wheelchairs is walk-in showers, or showers without a tub, door, or curtain. These showers can be rolled right into without getting out of the chair at all. This can be a more expansive renovation and may require the services of a licensed plumber or professional handyman to ensure everything is up to code and safely installed.
- Barrier-free shower doors: A barrier-free shower door is a shower door that is flush with the ground, meaning there is no lip or step into the shower. This can be useful for people who use wheelchairs and people with other mobility impairments, and reduces fall risks for seniors getting in and out of the shower on their own.
- Handheld shower controls: Handheld shower controls or a handheld showerhead can be useful for individuals with mobility impairments because it gives them more access to shower controls, either from a wheelchair or a shower seat. It can also reduce the number of times that they need to stand up or sit down in the shower, which can reduce fall risks.
- Handgrips: Handgrips or grab bars in or around the shower can help seniors steady themselves while getting in and out of the shower or rise from a seated position while in the shower. These hand grips come in a variety of sizes, materials, and can be installed on your own or with professional assistance.
- Shower seats: Shower seats can make getting into the tub and the process of showering easier for seniors and individuals with different mobility needs. You can buy free-standing shower seats that can be removed, or invest in a built-in shower seat or bench depending on your preference.
- Non-slip surfaces and materials: Non-slip mats and materials can help reduce fall risks for seniors and individuals with mobility disabilities. There are a plethora of non-slip options for the bathroom, including paints, mats, tape, spray, and more. You may also be able to get custom non-slip bathtubs built or installed.
- Transfer benches: Transfer benches can be a useful tool for wheelchair users. These benches can make it easier for individuals to move from chair to shower seat, bathtub, or toilet. These can be used independently, or with the assistance of a caretaker.
- Accessible storage: Typically, you want to avoid using high shelves in senior homes, because this can create fall risks or make items inaccessible. For that reason, pull-out drawers, lowered cabinet heights, or wheeled storage in the bathroom can all be more accessible than traditional vertical storage for people who use mobility aids.
Besides the bathroom, the bedroom is a room where seniors and individuals with mobility disabilities are most likely to spend the most time alone. Whether sleeping, changing clothes, or simply lounging, it’s important that the bedroom is independently accessible for these persons. The following renovations can transform any bedroom into an accessible and comfortable space:
- Adjustable beds: Having an adjustable bed can be helpful to seniors and people with mobility disabilities. Being able to raise or lower the bed can help with getting in and out of the bed, as well as create more ergonomic sleep patterns for those with specific equipment needs at bedtime.
- Mobility aid convenient storage: Having a convenient place to store mobility aids such as wheelchairs, scooters, walkers, canes, and crutches can help seniors or individuals with mobility disabilities easily access their aids when they need them. Building storage within reach of the bed, but without blocking pathways in the bedroom is typically ideal for accessibility and ease of use.
- Easy-Access Closets: Closets can pose accessibility issues for people with mobility aids, as they may be too tall for use. Building lower closet racks, removing closet doors, or installing lower handles can make these spaces more accessible.
- Lifting Equipment: Like bath lifts, there are also bed lifts that can be helpful for people who use wheelchairs and senior caretakers. These lifts can help individuals with mobility disabilities get in and out of bed independently, or with assistance.
- Reinforced Ceilings for Lifting Equipment: Some lifting equipment will require reinforcement. Before installing this equipment, you’ll want to contact a contractor and make sure that you have the proper reinforcements for any lifting equipment, both in the bedroom and bathroom.
- Flooring: Some flooring can affect the accessibility of bedroom areas. Carpet can be harder to maneuver with a wheelchair or walker than flat surfaces, and rugs can create lips that pose fall risks. Installing hardwood floors or purchasing a plastic chair mat for well-traveled areas can help mitigate these issues.
Being able to safely and efficiently access food is important for seniors and individuals with mobility disabilities living independently or with caretakers. Accessibility renovations in the kitchen can preserve a sense of autonomy and decrease the likelihood of kitchen accidents:
- Lowered countertops and cabinets: Lowered cabinets and countertops in the kitchen can make food, dishes, and other kitchen essentials accessible to people with mobility impairments. This can help with cooking and feeding themselves independently.
- Open space under kitchen sinks: Roll-under sinks in the kitchen can give people who use wheelchairs access to the faucet and counterspace.
- Touch control faucets: Touch control faucets can be helpful for individuals with all sorts of mobility aids. It allows less fine motor skills or assistance to get the sink to work, which can improve autonomy in the kitchen.
- Open floor plan: Open floor plans in the kitchen can be easier for mobility aids such as wheelchairs, walkers, scooters, and crutches to maneuver around in. Additionally, having an open floorplan in the kitchen can also be beneficial for caretakers and seniors to be in the same space for cooking or meal assistance.
- Accessible appliances: Accessible appliances can include appliances with large digital displays, with touch activation, or louder alerts/more visible signals. By having accessible appliances, seniors and people with mobility impairments can continue to use their appliances with minimal assistance.
Accessibility in the living room isn’t just important for the homeowner, but for any guests that they may have. These improvements to the living room can help make this space available to everyone:
- Remove tripping hazards: Tripping hazards may include rugs, unorganized electrical cords, and other clutter. Tripping hazards can be especially dangerous for seniors, as they can cause serious damage.
- Remove wobbly furniture: Wobbly or unsound furniture can also be a fall risk for seniors and people with mobility impairments if they were to rest on them. Tightening screws or removing this furniture all together can mitigate this risk.
- Remove furniture that blocks walkways: Blocked or tight walkways can make moving through areas with a mobility aid such as a wheelchair or walker difficult, or even impossible. Keeping walkways clear and furniture unobstructed is an important part of an accessible living room.
- Large remotes: Remotes with large buttons can be easier for seniors to use. The size can be easier for them to hold onto, and the larger buttons can promote visibility for ease of use.
- Smart thermostat: Smart thermostats can have many accessibility features. Touch controls can make it easier for people with fine motor skill impairments to use, large digital displays can make them easier for seniors to read, and remote controls can make them more accessible throughout the house.
- Hardwood floors: Hardwood floors are typically easiest for wheeled mobility aids to maneuver on, such as wheelchairs, walkers, and scooters. It may be a worthwhile investment if you or a loved one uses a wheeled mobility aid and has difficulty maneuvering on carpeted flooring.
Laundry Rooms or linen closets may have limited space, but there are still ways that you can maximize accessibility:
- Accessible Appliances: As we’ve mentioned before, digital displays, loud alerts, and touch activation are all accessible appliance features. When it comes to laundry, having a front loader, which is easier to access from a seated position, is another way to make laundry more accessible.
- Easy-to-access area: Maneuverability is important for people who use mobility aids. For laundry, this means that machines should have direct front access and be at an appropriate height. If the laundry machines are kept in a closet, you may consider removing the doors for ease of access.
- Accessible laundry accessories: There are laundry accessories that can make the process easier for people with mobility impairments. Things like rollable laundry carts, a retractable clothesline, or an adjustable ironing board are all accessible options. These accessories are not only easier to use, but they can be safer.
- Pull-out shelves: This is another accessible feature for the laundry room. Pull-out shelves can be placed at a lower height, be easy to manage with one hand, and can be a space saver in a limited area, such as a laundry room.
Garage, Entries, and Outdoors
Garages and outdoor spaces can be the cause of fall risks to seniors and people with mobility aids. Poor outdoor lighting, uneven steps, and overgrown plants are all hazards that can be made easily more accessible:
- Keeping plants trimmed and walkways clear: Overgrown vegetation can crowd walkways, causing issues for individuals using a mobility aid. It can also be a tripping hazard for seniors with or without a mobility aid.
- Handrails: Handrails or handgrips near outdoor doorways and steps can help seniors reduce fall risks when going outside, as well as assist people who use mobility aids with their balance.
- Widen paths: Widening paths can make it easier for people with mobility aids to get around outdoor spaces. It can also make it easier for caretakers assisting seniors or individuals with mobility impairments outdoors.
- Lighting: Increasing outdoor lighting can help improve outdoor visibility. This can allow seniors who may have trouble seeing at night to spend more time in their outdoor spaces without increasing fall risks.
- Patch concrete: Uneven concrete can be a falling hazard for seniors and individuals with mobility disabilities. Mobility aids can get stuck on large cracks and can even be impassable. High-traffic areas, like driveways, garages, and courtyards should all be patched for accessibility.
- Timer systems: Putting outdoor systems, such as lights or sprinklers, on timers can be helpful for seniors and people with mobility disabilities. By having set timers, seniors no longer have to worry about forgetting something is on, and people with mobility disabilities don’t have to worry about turning off a system that may be at an inaccessible height or place.
Should You DIY or Hire a Contractor?
Different levels of home renovation and remodeling may require different levels of training. For example: installing a brighter lightbulb to increase light in a room is an easy DIY fix. However, if you’re wanting to install new wiring, a new lighting fixture, or lower electrical outlets for accessibility, you’ll want to hire a licensed electrician or contractor. When trying to decide if you should DIY something, you can ask yourself these questions:
- Do I have all the necessary tools and parts for this project?
- Is this project dangerous if done incorrectly?
- Will the cost of repairing a mistake be more than hiring someone to make the change I want?
If you’re looking to remodel a loved one’s house, make sure you discuss what they would prefer with them first, because they are the ones who will be interfacing with the renovations every day.
Considerations for Hiring a Contractor
When hiring a contractor, there are certain things you’ll want to check to make sure that you’re hiring the right person for the job. Some of the questions to ask a contractor include:
- Check the Universal Design Certified Professionals (UDCP) through the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI): Many contractors who remodel homes specifically for people with accessibility needs have a UDCP certification with the NARI, so checking this resource is a great way to find a qualified professional.
- Check their certifications: Once you’ve found a contractor, you’ll want to check their certifications. Doing this is important to make sure that they are legally able to work on the home in question, ensure they have the right skill set for your needs. For example — someone with a plumbing certification that’s UDCP-certified may be able to make disability renovations, but won’t be much help making renovations that require electrical work.
- Ask for examples of previous work: By looking at work examples, you can establish expectations for the finished project. This can also be useful if you have a specialty request. By seeing previous work, you can have peace of mind that the professional you’re hiring is experienced.
- Ask for proof of insurance: Different contracting jobs require different kinds of insurance. This insurance doesn’t just protect the contractor, but any people who may be on the job site, including you or your loved ones.
- Be wary of scams: While the internet can be a great resource for finding professional workers, it can also host scams. By asking for proof of certification and insurance, you can ensure that you’re not signing up for a scam service that could put yourself, and the homeowner, at risk.
- Pay wisely: Studies have shown that people over 65 are more susceptible to financial scams. In order to avoid this, you can do a few things:
- Ask for a detailed quote beforehand and keep the figures.
- Compare prices of other contractors for the same service in order to properly negotiate service prices.
- Have a younger loved one or family member present for payment negotiations.
Making an informed hiring decision for contractor work can help you feel confident that you’re getting the best work possible, without sacrificing peace of mind for you or your loved ones.
Information for Contractors Providing Accessibility Remodelling and Safety Renovation Seniors
If you’re a contractor looking to become a disability remodeler, there are some things that you’ll need to do first in order to be certified. First, you will likely want to be UDCP registered with NARI. This is a requirement for all disability remodelers, however, being a UDCP emphasized design that is “usable for all people” which is incredibly important in accessibility remodeling.
Next, you’ll want to make sure that you have the right home improvement contractor license for the work you want to be doing. This is an essential step to becoming a professional remodeling contractor. Depending on your state, city, or practice, there may be specific licensure protocol professionals need to meet in order to bid on jobs. Having the right license not only ensures potential clients that you are qualified, but helps connect you with remodeling jobs you want to take.
Finally, when working in this field, you’ll want to take special care to meet the needs of your clientele, as seniors and people with mobility impairments can have specific, non-negotiable needs. As a professional accessibility remodeler, asking your clients questions about their projects, the function it’s intended to serve, and their general lifestyle needs can make a huge difference in the quality of service you’re able to provide.
Financial Assistance for Senior Safety Remodels and Accessibility Modifications
Renovation projects can be expensive, but there are ways that you can save money on remodeling, especially on accessibility remodeling. There are even some state and national programs that can help seniors with different needs pay for necessary accessibility remodels to their homes. Some of these programs include:
- Paying for Senior Care: Paying for Senior care has a list of non-Medicaid, aging-in-place assistance programs state by state, which you can use to find an organization local to your state.
- Rebuilding Together: Rebuilding together is a program that makes necessary repairs to homes that have current safety or health hazards, which includes accessibility repairs. Eligibility for this program may vary depending on your local affiliate.
- Medicare: While Medicare won’t pay for home remodeling, they will pay for mobility equipment with a doctor’s prescription. This equipment could include a wheelchair, battery-powered scooter, or walker. Talk with your healthcare provider about getting your mobility equipment paid for by your Medicare coverage.
- The Ability Center Home Accessibility Program: The Ability Center Home Accessibility Program provides loans to individuals who need accessibility renovations, such as ramps, low rise steps, stairlifts, grab bars installed in their homes.
Grants for Senior and Accessibility Modifications
There are specific grants, federal, state, and private, that seniors can apply for to help pay for their accessibility modifications. Some of these grants are:
- Veterans Affairs Grants: The VA offers three types of grants for former service members — Specially Adapted Housing (SAH), Special Housing Adaptation (SHA), and Housing Improvement and Structural Alteration (HISA). These grants are designed to cover the cost of home renovations to accommodate wheelchairs, blindness, mobility impairments, and other disabilities. To be eligible for this grant, you must present proof of service and injury.
- USDA Repair Loans and Grants: The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides repair loans and grants for low-income homeowners to repair or make necessary updates to their single-family homes. To be eligible for a loan or grant from the USDA, you will need to fill out the appropriate application forms, meet the income requirements, and be at least 62 years of age.
- HOME: The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) offers the HOME community grant, which is designed to cover costs of repair, rehabilitation, or reconstruction of senior homes. To be eligible for this program, you must meet income requirements and be the principal resident of the home.
Additional Resources for Seniors and Individuals With Mobility Disabilities
Below are some further resources for seniors and people with mobility impairments. These resources provide general information, community engagements and support, legal representation, and other services:
- Aging and Disability Resource Centers: ADRCs can be found across the country, and are designed to provide information and guidance to seniors and people with disabilities, as well as associated caretakers. You can find your local ADRC through the eldercare locator.
- Area Agency on Aging: AAA is another nationwide program that is dedicated to addressing the needs and concerns of seniors in their regional areas wishing to age in place. AAAs can It should be noted that Area Agency on Aging, and AAA, are general terms and your local program name may vary.
- Americans With Disabilities Act: The ADA provides information on laws pertaining to individuals with disabilities, as well as guidelines for workplaces, care facilities, and other public and private institutions that interface with people with disabilities. The ADA has a national network that provides guidance and training on issues of accessibility for caretakers and individuals with disabilities.
- State Assistive Technology Program: The national assistive technology act was created to provide necessary technologies to individuals of all ages with disabilities. The program provides technology, information, and assistance to individuals and families. Each state, including DC and Puerto Rico, has an Assistive Technology grant and AT program. You can find your state’s program with the AT state locator.
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