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Elderdesign: Home modifications for enhanced safety and self-care

Rosemary Bakker, MS, ASID
Research Associate in Gerontologic Design in Medicine
Weill Medical College of Cornell University, Division of Geriatrics and Gerontology

Reprinted with permission from Care Management Journals, Springer Publishing Company. Source: Bakker, R. Elderdesign: Home modifications for enhanced safety and self-care. Care Management Journals. 1999(Winter);1(1): 47-54.

Many people blame the aging process for problems they encounter with daily activities, when instead quite often it is the design of the home itself that creates unnecessary disabilities. Even though there are more people over the age of 65 than there are under 25 years of age, the design of today's homes, including the products contained in them, is still based on the anthropometry of young healthy adults (Pirkl, 1997). Builders and manufacturers do not take into account age-related conditions such as limited range of reach or reduced mobility when creating a home or a household product. Consequently, most dwellings are hostile to the physical and sensory changes that older adults encounter as they live well into their 8th, or 9th or 10th decade. For instance, 51% of adults 85 years of age and older receiving home care need help with bathing (Hing, 1994). This is easy to understand as many seniors undergoing the normal process of aging find it difficult to enter and exit safely from the bathtub. Even seemingly insignificant home features can have powerful and disabling effects: for a person recovering from surgery, taking multiple medications and in a weakened state, negotiating a walker over a doorsill can be tantamount to climbing Mt. Everest (Bakker, 1997).

Due to cost containment, miniaturization of hospital equipment, and personal preference, the home is now the preferred place both to recover from illness and receive long-term care services (Hing, 1994). But until we have new housing stock and products that take into account the needs of a person throughout a lifetime, retrofitting a home for safe aging should be a routine part of an older person's life, like tuning a car or visiting a doctor. As health care professionals, we need a basic understanding of how the design of the environment can both prevent injuries and maximize a patient's functioning. In addition, we need to keep abreast of the rapidly changing technological developments in home care equipment.

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