Aging In Place and Home Modifications

by Eric Corum

stairs going up

One of the first things that people think about when considering aging in place for a loved one is home modifications.  There are a wide range of ways to make a home environment more friendly for the elderly such as removing throw rugs, installing grab bars, or even more complicated remodeling like widening doorways so they can be traversed with a walker or wheelchair.

I recently read a research paper that made me reconsider how feverishly one should pursue home remodeling for a loved one.  The paper, which was published by Laura L. LienCarmen D. Steggell, and Susanne Iwarsson, highlighted that there are two important factors for adapting an environment to make it better suited for an elderly person.

The first factor is the quantitative improvements that can be made, such as raising a toilet seat so it is easier to stand up from.  The second is the perceived improvement of any such modification.

They noted in their research interviews that some seniors saw challenges in their environment as positive things because it kept them active.  One person, for example, noted that having stairs in their house is good because it helps them get exercise as long as they can safely navigate the stairs.

I can personally attest to this as one of my family members, who was aging in place, said the exact same thing to me when I asked her why she had a bedroom upstairs when there was an empty one downstairs.  Although she was over 90 years old, she felt it was important for her to be able to go up and down the stairs every day.  So in this case, although there may be a quantitative improvement in an environment for installing a lift to carry a person up the stairs, this might be perceived as a negative change to the senior.

To me, the senior’s perception is very important because it is a factor for geriatric depression, which is a notable concern among our senior population.  Once a senior becomes depressed, the likelihood of bad health outcomes (be it from falls, poor nutrition, medication mismanagment, or whatever) increases.

Adult children who are trying to determine how far to push home modifications for their parents to age in place have a tough balancing act.  They must strive to make the environment as safe as possible, yet at the same time they must be aware of how the changes will be perceived.

The best place to start is with an open discussion about the modifications.  If buy-in can be achieved by both parties, the chances of success will be vastly improved.
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