How to fix a home for an aging senior

More and more, elderly people are looking to “age in place” or stay in their homes long after retirement, rather than move to nursing homes or even assisted living facilities. One way to do that is to make homes more accessible, friendly to wheelchairs and walkers.

In other words, follow the principles of universal design, which simply means building features like doorways and counters so that anyone can use them.

“There are a number of things you can do,” says Margot Imdieke Cross, an accessibility specialist with the Minnesota State Council on Disability. First, she says, “provide at least one no-step entrance.”

Imdieke Cross grew up on a farm near West Union and because of an accident, has been in a wheelchair since she was 2. “Growing up in a chair, it was difficult to get into my friends’ homes. They were not accessible.”

Even those who are mobile now (or as Imdieke Cross puts it, “temporarily able-bodied”) would be wise to plan ahead or build to accommodate aging parents or neighbors.

She suggests two other must-haves: Doorways that are at least 34 inches wide and a bathroom on the main living level. “One of the big reasons people end up leaving the homes they’ve been in for 30 years is they can no longer walk up a flight of stairs.”

Rural seniors have particular needs, Imdieke Cross acknowledges. People who like to can tomatoes should adjust the heights of kitchen work surfaces. “Rural people are an independent bunch,” she says. “It’s not just the house. Anything they want to have access to, they should start being creative.”

She notes that if someone loves gardening, they can raise their flower or vegetable beds several feet so they don’t have to stoop. “Or if they are in a wheelchair, they can bring them down lower.”

If money is an issue, she says that churches often provide volunteers with building skills. The Minnesota Housing Finance Agency offers low-interest loans for accessibility projects. And the St. Cloud office of Independent Lifestyles, Inc. offers solutions as well.

It’s ridiculous how often the simplest fixes go unmade, says Imdieke Cross. Sometimes elderly people don’t think they can change things or they don’t realize how much easier their lives could be with a ramp or a grab bar.

“I just want to tell people,” she says, “I currently have a 103-year-old aunt in a nursing home. When she was 80, her doctor suggested that she get her hip replaced. She said ‘No, I’ll be dead before you know it.’ Now, she’s kicking herself because she should have gotten the replacement. The thing I hear from old people when they get changes to their homes or the scooter they claimed they didn’t need is, ‘I wish I would have done it years ago. If only I’d done this 10 years ago.’”

Imdieke Cross’s parting advice? “Quit enduring and start living.”

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