Home adaptations for seniors
When Ann Carson, 77, moved into her two-storey condo
on a busy Toronto street 23 years ago, it seemed the perfect place
in which to grow old. Located near shops, cafes, even a neighbourhood
movie theatre, and on a major streetcar line, it had the kinds of
amenities Carson felt she'd need once she retired. And as someone
who had suffered a major back injury in middle-age, she had already
made modifications in her condo to assist with daily activities
-- things such as pull-out storage drawers in her kitchen and cupboards,
and a bar-size refrigerator accessible while seated.
So, the retired psychotherapist and fulltime writer
thought she was in pretty good shape to embody the concept of "aging
in place." And with one exception, a pretty major one, she
is. Carson's challenge comes from the staircase to her second floor,
where her bedroom, office and bathroom are located. A recent knee
injury has made the climb difficult and very painful.
For the time being, she organizes her life to minimize
trips on those stairs. She takes her morning meal upstairs the night
before, then remains on the second floor writing in her office until
lunchtime. She is currently investigating the installation of a
toilet in part of a main-floor cupboard that houses her laundry
equipment, space she'll create by buying a stackable washer and
The stairs, however, are a more daunting, and a more
expensive, problem. "Because of the landing, I would need two
chairs if I install a stair lift. I've gotten quotes of $4,500 each
if I buy them secondhand or $10,000 new, plus labour costs."
A family member is helping her determine if financial help is available.
Government funding is available
For low-income seniors, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation
(CMHC) offers as much as $3,500 for home modifications under its
Home Adaptations for Seniors' Independence (HASI) program. It covers
minor items such as handrails, lever door handles, walk-in showers
with grab bars and bathtub seats. A second CMHC program aimed at
people with disabilities offers as much as $16,000 and pays for
more extensive home alterations such as door widening and ramps.
provides a self-assessment guide available in print or online (http://www.cmhc-schl.gc.ca)
to help determine how your home might be modified to meet changing
needs as you age. The guide covers entrances, stairs, kitchens,
bathrooms, laundry, storage areas, telephone or door answering,
and controlling light and ventilation. By answering questions in
each section, you can determine what types of modifications might
help with a specific difficulty.
"The most common area of difficulty we see is definitely stairs,"
says Alana Thiessen, an occupational therapist with the Accessible
Housing Society of Calgary. Thiessen does home assessments and,
working with one of her agency's architects, advises on what modifications
could be made to assist seniors or people with disabilities in their
own homes. "Sometimes the solution is as simple as installing
a handrail or rebuilding stairs so they have lower risers. Other
times, the person needs a ramp or a porch lift to get into their
Other modifications Thiessen typically recommends
- Relocating the laundry room
to the main floor
- Adding room under sinks to accommodate a seated
position (and shallow sinks so knees don't get knocked)
- Widening doorways and sliding doors
- Installing a wall-hung bathroom vanity with no
cupboard underneath to permit a chair
- Using a shower instead of a tub (preferably a wheel-in
shower with no lip to get over)
- Adding grab bars, single-lever taps and hand-held
showers in the bathroom
- Designing open floor plans wherever possible and
building level house entries equipped with motion lights
- Using a counter-top stove with front controls and
a side-hinged oven door
- Constructing concrete pathways instead of using
patio stones or interlocking brick
Plan for the future now
Features that allow seniors to remain in their homes as they age
can be added as the need arises, but this is a lot easier if the
home (or home renovation) follows the principles of FlexHousing,
or Universal Design, as it's known in the United States.
follows a cradle-to-the-grave concept wherein a house is designed
to follow us through our life stages (single, couple, children,
senior) and allow for flexible functions including home offices
and self-contained suites for aging family members or adult children.
It doesn't mean that the house contains all the possible features
you might need through the ages and stages of your residence, but
it does mean that the infrastructure (plumbing, electrical, roof
supports, etc.) is in place to allow for changes down the road.
Brian Hollohan, regional manager for community development
with the CMHC in Calgary, says it "seems logical to think in
advance. Housing is built to last 100 years or more, but we don't
live our whole lives in the same way. Our houses need to change
as we ourselves change." Hollohan says FlexHousing design saves
in the long run. "It's a lot easier to move a bathroom if there's
space -- and plumbing -- for it in the first place."
He cautions that when seniors set out to do home modifications,
they or their families need to do some homework, such as researching
to hire a good contractor. Hollohan notes that with the current
building and reno boom, contractor availability (or lack thereof)
is causing real holdups in getting work done.
Carson cautions that seniors need to consider another
type of modification to allow them to stay in their homes as they
age. "It's called exercise," she says emphatically. "You
have to keep your muscles strong and your joints flexible. All the
adaptations to your home are useless unless you adapt yourself."
Diana McLaren is a writer in