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  • Writer's pictureChris Wingate

Home Remodeling for Seniors With Disabilities

Aging at home is appealing to nearly everybody. As older adults approach their senior years, making their homes more accessible and easier to live in becomes paramount. While the home may not seem like a hazardous place, most homes are rife with hidden risks — especially for seniors with disabilities. 


According to a 2021 survey conducted by the AARP, 77% of adults aged 50 and older want to continue living in their own homes for as long as possible. In the same survey, 79% of those respondents said that in order to age in place at home, they'd need to modify bathrooms, while 71% said their homes had indoor and outdoor accessibility issues. 

For those living with disabilities, home remodeling often needs to be treated with urgency. Disabled seniors may need bathroom modifications that ensure safety, such as handrails or walk-in tubs. They may need hallways and doorways in their homes widened to accommodate a wheelchair or ramps built inside or outside of the home. 


Regardless of the changes needed to ensure your home is safe, the guide below can help you easily navigate the home remodeling process. It includes important information about common home modifications that disabled seniors need, why they need these modifications and what they typically cost. It also includes resources available to U.S. seniors to help cover costs associated with making necessary home modifications.


What To Consider While Planning Your Home Modifications

Home remodeling and modifications sound overwhelming, but they don't have to be. In some cases, you can make a few simple tweaks to parts of your home that enhance safety and accessibility for seniors with minor disabilities. When it comes to larger modifications, particularly those that require removing or moving walls or doorways and those that need additional large structures such as ramps or railings, it's best to hire a professional contractor. 


Here are some of the most important considerations to make when preparing to remodel or modify your home:

  1. Not all home modifications are expensive. In some cases, some modifications are easy to do yourself and inexpensive, such as increasing bulb wattage to enhance lighting, installing grab bars in bathrooms and removing any furniture, rugs or other items that could become fall hazards.

  2. Financial assistance may be available. Depending on your financial situation and reasons for remodeling, grants and other funding options may be available to help you cover home modification costs, particularly when you conduct them to help enhance safety, sanitation or accessibility in your home. You can find more about these financial resources near the end of this guide. 

  3. It's best to consult an expert during the planning process. When determining which home modifications are necessary, consulting with a Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) can be useful. The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) awards this designation, which provides comprehensive training for those interested in helping seniors age comfortably and safely at home. You can find a CAPS in your area by searching the NAHB's Professionals With Home Building Designations directory and selecting "CAPS" in the filter options.

  4. Accessibility and safety are the most important factors. If you're in a wheelchair or at risk of soon being confined to one, consider that when determining how accessible your home is. To accommodate wheelchairs, you may need to add ramps, widen doorways and rearrange furniture to make space in your home. If anything in your home impedes safety, you should promptly repair or remove it. Also, consider adding technology such as smart locks, thermostats and lighting that you can control via smartphone or smart speaker to improve security and accessibility.

  5. Focus on the most commonly used areas of the home. If you don't have the budget to remodel the entire house to accommodate disabilities, start by focusing on the most important and most commonly used rooms. For most, that includes the entryway, bathrooms, kitchen and living area. If the laundry area is on the top floor or in the basement, consider relocating it to the main floor. If your circumstances prevent you from going up and down stairs easily, also consider adding a bedroom and full bathroom to the main floor if you don't have one there already.


Typical Home Modifications for Seniors with Disabilities

As you determine the types of home modifications you need to make your home safer and more accessible, consider making an array of changes to your dwelling. The section below explains some of the most common home modifications disabled seniors make.


Creating Accessible Approaches, Landscapes and Doorways

Whether you're accommodating a wheelchair or simply making a more accessible entryway, it's one of the most important areas to consider in your remodel. An accessible landscape and approach to your home should eliminate or limit stairs, which can present a dangerous tripping hazard for disabled seniors. Instead, consider installing flat walkways or ramps that you can easily navigate with a wheelchair. It's also important to ensure that plants, rocks and decorations are away from walkways and entryways to provide adequate space for wheelchairs and canes. 


Who Should Consider This Modification?

Making changes to entryways, landscapes and doorways is necessary for anyone using a wheelchair. It can also be a good idea for those who use a cane and may need a little more space to get around comfortably.


Getting Started

When making changes to your home to accommodate wheelchairs or to make approaches, landscapes and doorways more accessible, it's best to consult the Americans with Disabilities Act for guidance. It can provide accessibility requirements and information about suggested widths for doorways and hallways, ramp slope requirements and other important factors to consider before starting your home remodel project. 

As with any major remodeling project, it's best to consult professionals to ensure the job gets done right. For this type of work, you may want to reach out to a general contractor as well as a landscaper who can handle alterations to doorways, install ramps and ensure pavers and walkways are flat and secure.


Installing Disability-Friendly Flooring

As with outdoor walkways and surfaces, interior flooring should be level, smooth and easy to navigate if you're using a wheelchair or a cane. The best types of flooring for those with these disabilities include rubber, vinyl and cork. While vinyl is generally the easiest of the three to care for and the smoothest option for those navigating their homes in wheelchairs, rubber and cork are softer and more slip-resistant, which make them safer for seniors prone to falls.


Who Should Consider This Modification?

Disability-friendly flooring is a good idea for any senior, even those with only minor disabilities. While seniors in wheelchairs are most likely to benefit from vinyl, cork and rubber flooring, it can help contribute to the overall safety of seniors' homes.


Getting Started

New flooring can be expensive, with vinyl floors ranging from as little as $1 per square foot to $8+ per square foot in most cases. This cost doesn't include additional expenses such as professional installation or removing old flooring. Before starting this project, it's important to understand the costs and determine whether this renovation will fit your budget. Obtain quotes from several flooring companies and compare online reviews for each to determine which company will offer you the best value. 


Enhancing Bathroom Safety and Accessibility

According to the AARP, the bathroom is the most dangerous room in the home. Damp floors and wet shower floors can cause slips and falls, and bathtubs with tall edges can be difficult to climb in and out of, again, posing a fall risk. Steam and moisture trapped inside the bathroom can also lead to less obvious threats, including mold and mildew. Additionally, cleaning products commonly used in bathrooms often contain chemicals that can cause skin irritation or give off fumes that are dangerous if inhaled.


While some of these hazards will continue to exist regardless of home modifications, you can make changes to reduce common risks and ensure a higher level of safety and accessibility in the bathroom. That includes widening doorways to create more space for seniors who use walkers or wheelchairs, installing a shower seat and grab bar in the bathroom to make bathing safer and adding a raised toilet to improve stability and balance for those who struggle to get on and/or off the toilet. Seniors can also consider disability-friendly flooring in bathrooms, as well as non-slip mats inside and outside of the bathtub. 


Who Should Consider This Modification?

Most seniors can benefit from making changes to their bathrooms to enhance safety and accessibility. Those with mobility limitations are most likely to benefit from modifications to entryways and overall bathroom size, as well as changes to the shower and tub, such as installing a walk-in tub or shower to enhance accessibility. 


Getting Started

Bathroom modifications can range in price dramatically. While small changes such as adding non-slip mats, a shower seat or a grab bar in the shower can cost as little as $100, making bigger changes such as replacing the shower or bathtub or widening entryways can cost thousands, according to home renovation expert, Bob Vila.


Before starting bathroom modifications, it's important to determine which changes are necessary, what they'll cost and how you can make them work with your budget.


Modifying Kitchens To Accommodate Disabilities

Most kitchens aren't disability-friendly. Standard countertops are 36-inches tall and important kitchen features, such as sinks, cupboards and stoves, aren't designed to accommodate people who use a wheelchair while preparing food. Fortunately, you can make several adjustments in the kitchen to make it easier for disabled seniors to navigate. That includes:

  • Creating a more accessible workspace: Reduce counter heights to 34-inches or lower, depending on the senior's comfort level, or for a more budget-friendly solution, install pullout shelves at a comfortable height.

  • Make the kitchen sink accessible: Add open space below the kitchen sink by moving plumbing components to the back and removing cupboards. 

  • Replace the faucet: Select a kitchen faucet that's easier to use, such as a touch or single-lever faucet and install it along the side of the sink, so it's within reach for a person in a wheelchair.

  • Make drawers and cupboards easier to open: Replace knobs on cupboards and drawers with handles, which are easier to pull for many disabled people.

  • Replace the refrigerator: If necessary, consider replacing the refrigerator with a model that features a bottom-drawer freezer or a side-by-side fridge and freezer to ensure that the freezer is wheelchair-accessible.

  • Create space: Consider removing kitchen islands or placing them further away from other countertops to make more space for a wheelchair or walker to get through. Additionally, widening entry doors and using smaller furniture, such as cabinets, stools and kitchen tables, can make more space for seniors to move throughout the kitchen.

  • Ensure controls are within reach: Controls on the stove, oven and other kitchen appliances are often toward the back of the appliance or up high. Consider purchasing appliances with controls at the front so disabled seniors can access them without reaching across a hot stovetop.


Who Should Consider This Modification?

Most kitchen modifications aim to accommodate seniors or other persons who require a wheelchair. That said, some modifications can make it safer or easier for seniors who use a cane or walker, including adding more space in the kitchen, moving controls and changing the faucet and refrigerator for something more accessible.


Getting Started

Before you start remodeling your kitchen, list the things you or the person living in the home find most difficult to reach or operate and determine the best solution for those problems. If reaching things in upper cabinets is an issue, you might resolve it by simply rearranging your kitchen and keeping the most commonly used items within reach. Of course, wheelchair-bound seniors likely require the most extensive kitchen modifications and should prepare their budget accordingly. While replacing drawer and cupboard knobs with handles is a relatively inexpensive task, other changes, including lowering cabinets, moving or demolishing kitchen islands and replacing refrigerators, can be a hefty investment. 


Increasing Accessibility in Bedrooms

The first steps to making a bedroom more accessible are widening the doorway and ensuring you arrange furniture to allow a person who uses a wheelchair, walker or cane to move freely throughout the room. In smaller bedrooms, that may mean keeping furnishings to a minimum and placing larger items, such as the bed or dresser, against a wall. 


Disabled seniors may struggle to get in and out of bed, so it's important to ensure you place it at the right height for easy transfers. That may mean increasing or decreasing the bed height by adding or removing a box spring, using risers or purchasing a new mattress. Bed rails or grab bars, as well as ceiling lifts, can make it easier for disabled seniors to get in and out of bed safely. 


Lighting adjustments can also make it easier and more comfortable for disabled seniors. That includes installing a dimmer switch or adding bedside lamps for more comfortable evening lighting. Lowering light switches or installing smart bulbs will help wheelchair-bound seniors and those with mobility issues operate lighting more comfortably.

In closets, you can lower clothing racks to keep hanging items within reach and wall-mount dressers to prevent them from falling forward and causing injury.


Who Should Consider This Modification?

Making the bedroom safer and more comfortable is important for all disabled seniors. While not every senior needs ceiling lifts, comfortable, accessible lighting and safety features such as dresser mounts and bed rails can ensure seniors have the tools they need to prevent injuries in the bedroom.


Getting Started

Start by planning the right layout for bedroom furniture and ensuring all clutter and unnecessary items are out of the way. If the senior is in a wheelchair or using a walker, determine whether bed height adjustments are necessary and analyze their ability to reach outlets, light switches and other important features within the room. From there, you can decide which modifications are most important and a budget that suits your financial situation.


Modifications for Multi-floor Homes

While climbing stairs can help some older adults gain lower-body strength and retain flexibility, those with mobility issues might struggle to navigate staircases safely. The National Institute on Aging states that six out of every 10 falls happen at home, with staircases particularly concerning among seniors.


When disabilities come into play, climbing up or descending the staircase feels even riskier. While you can make modifications, such as adding a stairlift or installing a home elevator, they can be expensive. While the most basic stairlifts cost between $2,000 and $15,000 to install, home elevators cost an average of $30,000.


For those who don't have the budget for these solutions, moving sleeping areas and other frequently used areas to the main floor can make it easier for disabled seniors to continue living at home. Adding handrails to both sides of the staircase, as well as non-slip pads or installed carpet to the stairs, can make it safer for seniors who can walk to navigate between levels of the home.


Who Should Consider This Modification?

An installed stairlift or elevator is usually necessary for any disabled senior using a wheelchair unless moving bedrooms to the main floor is a viable option. Handrails and other safety precautions on stairs are typically only necessary for seniors who can still go up and down the stairs.


Getting Started

Because elevators and stairlifts are a large expense, it can be helpful for seniors to seek out financing options or grants that contribute to home modification costs. The end of this guide lists some federal resources for these renovations.


Making Changes To Lighting and Electrical Systems To Increase Safety

Lighting in a disabled senior's home should be bright enough to illuminate areas where hazards are present. In some homes, this may mean that you need to add lighting or increase light wattage to brighten the space. 


It's also important that those in wheelchairs or with limited flexibility can easily access light switches and electrical outlets. This often requires lowering light switches for those in wheelchairs and raising or moving outlets near counters and other surfaces.


Who Should Consider This Modification?

As seniors age, many experience deteriorating vision and require brighter light to see effectively. Lighting improvements can benefit any senior experiencing reduced vision.

You should raise outlets for any senior who struggles to bend down to access them, while you should lower light switches for seniors confined to a wheelchair and unable to comfortably reach them.


Getting Started

When managing electrical modifications, it's vital to hire a qualified electrician to complete the work. Start by searching online for electricians in your area online or asking friends and family members for referrals. Before hiring any contractor, shop around to compare quotes, read reviews and ask for proof of licensing and insurance.


Making Homes Safer for Seniors With Smart Home Technology

Smart home technology makes it easier for seniors to control electronics, lighting and other components in their homes. By using a smart hub such as Amazon Alexa or Google Home, or their smartphone, seniors can operate compatible electronics, such as the television, thermostat, lights, oven and items plugged into smart outlets, with their voice or touch controls directly on their device. You can connect alarm systems and video doorbells to a smartphone or smart hub, enhancing safety within the home. Additionally, disabled seniors can use tools such as Amazon Alexa to order groceries and other items directly from Amazon, Whole Foods and other retailers. 


Who Should Consider This Modification?

Adding smart home technology is something that all disabled seniors should consider. Smart hubs and other tools can reduce the need for getting up to complete minor tasks, such as changing the temperature on the thermostat or answering the door, which minimizes the risk of falls and related injuries.


Getting Started

You can set up a smart home altogether or in stages, and the cost varies depending on which features of the home you want to automate. While you can purchase the hub to control the home for less than $100, automating other elements throughout the home will incur additional costs. Smart light bulbs may cost approximately $40 per piece, while a smart thermostat can cost several hundred dollars, depending on the make and model. 

Before investing in smart technology, prioritize which home features you want to automate first and ensure you have the tools, such as a smart hub or smartphone, to control them once installed. Consider applying for assistive technology grants that may be available within your state to help cover costs. You can also search for nearby assistive technology lending libraries, which allow disabled seniors and individuals to borrow some devices and tools that may make living at home with a disability easier.


SeniorAdvice.com provides different resources to help everyone make informed decisions about senior care. Seniors, people with disabilities, and their families can get free informational guides to finding the best care and facilities in their area. Read more about it here: https://www.senioradvice.com/articles/home-remodeling-for-seniors-with-disabilities


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