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Ohio Department of Aging Boomerang: It all comes back to you!

Boomerang: It all comes back to you!

My Family - October 2009

Is Your Home Visitable?
Check for and Remove Barriers for Loved Ones and Yourself

Great Aunt Emma has always come over for all the family events, but it is getting harder for her. She gets around pretty good with her walker, but she can't help out in the kitchen like she enjoys doing. It's hard for her just to get into the kitchen because she can barely get her walker through the narrow door or lift her feet over the raised threshold. She also is embarrassed because she needs someone to help her go to the bathroom - help she does not need in her own home. Not only is the bathroom on the second floor, it is very difficult to maneuver using her walker and there is nothing she can grab to steady herself. She feels like a bother and doesn't want to ask for help with every little thing. She is considering staying home next time.

Structural barriers in your home can make it difficult for others to visit.Not only do structural barriers in homes prevent older adults and people with disabilities from aging in place in their own homes, they also make it difficult for people who need basic accessibility to visit family and friends. According to the Journal of the American Planning Association, 91 percent of newly built single family homes will have a resident or visitor with physical limitations or disabilities during the home's useful life.

Take a look at your home for things that could present problems for loved ones with limited mobility - or for you should illness or injury make it difficult for you to get around. Many homes, even those built recently, can have steps at all entrances, narrow doorways, long and narrow hallways and no bathroom on the main floor.

Eliminating these barriers is at the heart of a new movement in home building and design called visitability. A home that is visitable can be lived in or visited by people who have trouble with steps or who use wheelchairs or walkers. A house is visitable when it has:

  • At least one outside entrance with no steps;
  • Doorways with at least 32 inches of clear passage space; and
  • At least one bathroom on the main floor that can comfortably accommodate a wheelchair.

The visitability movement also includes a call for universal design in new home construction and existing home renovation. Universal design means designing and building for people of all sizes, ages and abilities, with needs that will change over time. A home built with universal design principles is less likely to need modifications to accommodate unexpected injuries and illnesses. Examples of universal design include:

  • Smooth ground surfaces at entranceways;
  • Wide interior doors and hallways;
  • Lever handles, rather than knobs, for opening doors;
  • Light switches with large flat panels, rather than small toggle switches;
  • Buttons on control panels that can be distinguished by touch;
  • Bright and appropriate lighting, particularly task lighting; and
  • Cabinets, counters and workspaces at various or adjustable heights.

Getting back to Great Aunt Emma, what kinds of modifications could be done to make her visits easier and more enjoyable for her? In the short term, you can set up kitchen work space in the dining room for her and others, install grab bars in the bathroom and install gradual ramps at thresholds. In the long-term, you could consider adding a downstairs bathroom and building ramps at entrances.

If you'd like to see the principles of visitability and univeral design as applied to a new home, visit the Universal Design Living Laboratory online. Paralyzed since 1998, Rosemarie Rosetti, along with her husband, Mark Leder, wanted to build a home that demonstrates and showcases multiple principles of visitability and universal design, including energy efficient building methods, advanced automation technology and a healthy home construction approach. When the home is completed in Spring 2010, it will be open to the public for a short time before Rosetti and her husband move in.

By making your existing or new home more visitable, you not only ensure that family and friends will feel welcome and able to visit, but you'll also be set should your own abilities change. For more information about visitability, go to www.VisitabilityOhio.org and www.ConcreteChange.org.