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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 dryer.

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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.

CMHC also provides a self-assessment guide available in print or online ( 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.

Common adaptations
"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 house."

Other modifications Thiessen typically recommends are:

  • 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.

FlexHousing 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 how 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 Toronto.

-- Posted: April 7, 2006
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