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Design Tips for Living at Home Longer
By Elaine Terner

Every senior wants to remain independent in his or her own home as long as possible. There are four basic elements needed to accomplish this goal: accessibility adaptations, furniture design, color scheme and sensory accessories. When people feel content in their home environment, they will perform at their highest level, be more receptive to any educational and therapeutic interventions necessary, and will be more manageable for caregivers. These tips come from 33 years experience raising a son with autism and 25 years experience with my husband who had Parkinsonís disease.

Accessibility adaptations will enable individuals to navigate their living space. An assessment of the home and an interview with the individual determine what modifications need to be made. The person needs to enter and exit the home easily, as well as access every area of the home. The most critical areas are the bathroom and kitchen. In the bathroom, something as simple as an ADA toilet may be needed with a couple of grab bars to provide assistance with sitting on and getting off the toilet. The bathing area may require a step-in tub or roll-in shower with grab bars and a shower seat. With the roll-in shower, a combination showerhead with a hand-held piece provides a complete bathing system. In the kitchen, the countertop height and cabinet arrangement may need to be adjusted.

If a person uses a wheelchair, there are appliances made that operate to accommodate the presence of a wheelchair. Further, there are many kitchen gadgets such as reachers to access higher shelves and specially designed utensils to aid in the handling of food and for eating. In the living area, there should be enough open space to manipulate without any furniture pieces obstructing mobility. Some elimination of some pieces may be necessary and creating a piece that serves a multifunctional use, like a cabinet as opposed to just a table or making a combination table/shelving unit. All accessibility issues can be accommodated depending upon the personís abilities. Technology is available to provide something new for a specific impairment even if it has never been created before.

Furniture design is the second key element. All pieces should have no sharp corners, meaning that all corners should be rounded to avoid injury if a fall should take place. Traditional couches should give way to a more bench type seating. The seat and seat back can be padded and covered with vinyl for easy cleaning, but there should be a small open space in between the seat and the seat back in the event of a body function accident. The substance will then fall to the floor so that the seating can be cleaned as well as the floor with no consequences. With a traditional couch, the material soaks into the fabric and the padding inside where it remains as a permanent damage. More furniture concerns are in the bedroom. Can the person get in and out of bed? Is the person incontinent? The bed construction and materials used can allow for complete cleanup with no damage to the bed itself.

Next, color scheme using calming colors can make a huge difference for the better. A human beingís reaction to color is automatic and cannot be controlled. Earth tones such as greens, blues, and beiges/browns are the ideal. Colors that can counter or provoke a negative response are red (raises blood pressure and stimulates hyperactivity) and yellow (makes muscles feel heavier, thus impacting the ability to move typically).

Finally, sensory accessories, which are objects that promote a feel-good feeling, can be added to the space. Providing favorite music, family photos, a soft fabric throw blanket, a pretty live or silk plant, to mention a few, promote smiles. Any object that sparks a happy response can accomplish contentment. All these elements are necessary to create the ideal environment. Once contentment within the individual is achieved, life runs very smoothly.


Elaine Terner, is the founder of Exceptional Designs and a Residential Interior Designer and Certified Assistive Technology Professional. She brings a unique perspective on caregiving because of her experience caring for her adult son with autism and 25 years with her late husbandís Parkinsonís disease. Visit her website exceptionaldesigns.com to learn more about home design and customized environments that focus on accommodating individuals with disabilities.


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