Six Ways to Make Your Home More Accessible for Loves Ones Who Need It
Whether you're planning a future weekend visit from an elderly aunt, inviting a friend who uses a wheelchair to your backyard for a masked gathering, or trying to make your space safer for soon-to-be-regular visits from your aging parents, small changes can make your home more accessible in big ways. "One of the biggest regrets I hear out of my clients is how much they miss being able to visit their siblings or kids because they just can't get into and around the home," says Monique Chabot, O.T.D., of Jefferson College of Rehabilitation Sciences. "Social isolation and loneliness are a huge danger to our mental health—they can cause significant negative health effects on our older adults."
Though it might feel awkward to ask a guest what changes they'd like you to make before their visit, it's a conversation worth having. "People can make assumptions about what the person needs without checking in with them first. I see that a lot and it frustrates many of my clients," says Chabot. "Involving the family member or friend in the process privately—not in front of the party—is a good strategy. It is their life and they know it better than anyone." While physical disabilities and aging present a wide range of challenges that vary from person to person, similar adjustments—like the ones outlined ahead—can help people who might have very different diagnoses.
Brighten your space.
A simple, inexpensive way to assist older adults or people with vision impairments is to add additional lamps—or brighter bulbs—in strategic locations around your house. "We need more [light] than we realize, sooner than we realize," says Chabot. "Lighting goes a very long way to making people safe and preventing accidents." For a temporary change, replace your current bulbs with higher-lumen options; for a guest staying overnight or maneuvering around your home on their own, add lighting options that can be accessed from the entrance to each room. "If someone isn't familiar with the home, they are more likely to get hurt making their way to where a lamp might be as they don't have the motor memory to know the layout," says Chabot. Look for motion- or voice-activated lights, automatic fixtures controlled by your smart home software, or lamps controlled by switches at the doorway—and add smaller puck lights to illuminate dim hallways, staircases, and other transitional areas.
Make space to maneuver.
Accommodate guests who use mobility devices by clearing your walkways and addressing any tripping hazards, including loose rug edges or trailing power cords. "[These falls] can be from balance, weakness, stamina, or quite frankly, simple accidents," says Chabot. "It really can go a long way to look down and make sure there is nothing someone can trip on or get stuck on with a wheelchair." Consider moving furniture to allow enough space to turn with a cane or wheelchair—in Chabot's experience, a person using a wheelchair needs a five-foot radius to turn safely. "For people with walkers," she says, "they will also need more room to turn around as they are supposed to go in a circle, not lift their walker as they turn."
Find a way around the steps.
For guests with mobility issues, scaling stairs to enter a home can present a painful obstacle. "Even one step can be a real challenge for someone, not to mention the stairs within a home between floors," Chabot says. "I usually put in extra railings and an external grab bar to help people get into their homes, but for short term, choose the entrance with the least number of steps, or look into a ramp system." If installing a permanent ramp isn't appropriate for your situation, consider renting or buying a temporary one; interior threshold ramps can also help guests using wheelchairs move between rooms safely.
Elevate your seating.
Guests with reduced stamina, pain, or generalized weakness often find it difficult to lift themselves up from too-low chairs and sofas. "People who have trouble with getting off of chairs should have access to a chair with arms, if that is available to them," says Chabot. "I have also had success with putting a firm foam cushion on couches and lower chairs to help provide a bit of height." Bed risers under a sofa—instead of a cushion on top—can also help guests stand up more easily. "The idea is to get the person at a 90-degree angle with their knees and hips while also able to still push off the couch," says Chabot.
If you intend to have a guest who uses a wheelchair at a formal, sit-down meal, check the height of your table: "Accessible tables for wheelchairs are between 28 to 34 inches high," says Chabot. "A person needs to have at least 27 inches of clearance under a table for their legs, regardless." And don't forget another important seat: A toilet riser and temporary lift rails can provide bathroom independence for your guests.
Update bedrooms and bathrooms.
For overnight guests, add a bed rail that provides assistance for rising from a soft mattress, and identify too-long bedding that could pose a tripping hazard. "I would tuck all blankets under the bed corners so that no blanket ends are on the floor; I've seen too many accidents that way," says Chabot. Shoulder arthritis or balance issues can make it hard to reach onto higher shelves or open bifold closet doors, so Chabot also recommends laying out towels, extra pillows, or other items an overnight guest might need. In the shower, offer a seat with handles that allow guests to push up safely, and prevent falls on wet floors with proper mats. "A nonskid bathmat [outside the tub] is important—it shouldn't move when you stand on it and shuffle your feet," says Chabot. "Inside the tub, I have had good luck with suction cup nonskid material, like the old-fashioned rubber duckies. No tub ever has enough friction on the bottom to be truly nonskid without one of these skid-resistant items. For my own grandparents, that would be the first thing I would do." One other caution: Don't depend on suction-cup grab bars. "They fall off the walls really easily," she says, "and are not meant for the amount of force that someone would put on it to truly stabilize themselves."
Keep up with basic home maintenance.
Your weekend to-do list is likely full of small improvements that keep your home safe for all of your guests—and for you. Chabot recommends tightening loose railings, securing raised floorboards, and preventing leaks that might cause a slippery patch on the floor. "Make sure that windows can open and close easily so that people don't hurt themselves or lose their balance," she says, "and make sure no doors are sticking or getting stuck on carpet." If your guest does request a specific assistive device, look for comparable items at big box stores instead of medical supply specialty shops. "Many of the things that can be done to improve a home's accessibility would improve the home for anyone," says Chabot. "When we take care of those of us in most need, we take care of all of us."