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Elderdesign: Home modifications for enhanced safety and self-care

Understanding Aesthetics

Many people resist home modifications and "assistive technology" products that are designed for easier use by people with disabilities because these products have an industrial appearance: people do not want their homes to look like hospitals (Wylde, 1995). Until recently, little attention was paid to the aesthetics of assistive products. Ugly metal finishes and bulky, awkward shapes are still the rule. In many instances, elders will risk pain and injury rather than use a device that stigmatizes them as "disabled" or "old". Instead, everyday household items are substituted for specialty products: flimsy shower rods are dangerous stand-ins for grab bars, umbrellas, not made to support a person's weight, are used as canes, and household shopping carts without brakes replace walkers.

Fortunately, due to consumer demand and computer technology, institutional products are slowly being re-designed to blend in with the home environment: grab bars and hand rails in decorator colors, low air loss bed overlays with chintz coverlets, hospital beds with wooden headboards and footboards, walkers in bright hues with quilted carryalls, and slip-retardant flooring in an array of colors. Increased attention is paid to elder ergonomics: products that are easier for arthritic hands to twist, hold and grasp, color contrasts for on/off buttons, larger print for aging eyes, chairs designed for elder anatomy that are easy to get into and out of, and doorbells and telephones with enhanced high and low frequency tones for older ears.

Many of these products are not readily available in neighborhood stores, and tracking down distributors can be a timely chore for both consumers and health care professionals. In addition, because of limited production means high costs, many attractive and innovative products may be beyond the financial reach of the majority of older adults. Research suggests, however, that offering consumers a choice and including them in the decision making process helps them more readily accept change (Miller, 1997).

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