Whether you are an older adult aging in place or a family member caring for your elderly parent(s) in your home, it’s best to make any needed modifications throughout the house to senior proof (aka elder proof) the home so that it’s as safe as possible.
Senior proofing a home requires making changes to make the home safer and fall proof the home. It may require changes such as home modifications, re-arranging furniture, installing adaptive equipment and possibly using monitoring devices.
Most everyone wants to stay in the comfort of their own homes as they grow older and for many, it’s a good idea. But only if the house is safe for the elderly people living in it.
The 9 main topics to cover in senior proofing your home are:
- fall proofing
- decluttering the living spaces
- using senior friendly furniture
- assistive devices as needed
- techniques to compensate for memory problems
- fire safety issues
- home security
- modifications to the home
- methods and tools to make daily tasks as easy and safe as possible
By planning for these issues, you will help to ensure not only a safe environment for your aging parents but you will also be making your life a bit easier as well.
In this article I will be focusing on the safety measures to make the home safer for your elderly parents BUT the information applies to any senior citizen and caregivers of older adults.
Tips On Fall Proofing Your Home
Reducing fall risks is one of the most important steps towards senior proofing a home. Fall proofing a home is different for every individual because every person has a different set of disabilities.
It should be no surprise that falls are the leading cause of death, injury and hospitalization for seniors.
Falls are common and costly, especially among Americans age 65 and older. But falls are preventable and do not have to be an inevitable part of aging.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
There are multiple factors that contribute to falls in the elderly population. These include things such as…
- the amount and type of medications someone is on
- whether or not they have suffered a disease such as a stroke or Parkinson’s
- their visual abilities
- their cognitive abilities
- and much more
The important things that you do to help to fall proof your home will depend on these issues I mentioned above and more. In other words, senior proofing / fall proofing a home environment really is a very unique project for every single person.
But, having said all that – there are 3 basic issues that should be addressed in all cases.
- Making changes to the environment either through home modification (i.e. converting a step in shower into a walk in), adding adaptive equipment where needed, using products like stair treads, decluttering living areas, etc.
- Installing safety equipment such as motion sensors or light sensor nightlights and using more sensible accessories such as shoes, anti slip mats, stair treads, grab bars, etc.
- Being aware of the medications your senior loved one is taking and the effects of those medications.
A visit to your local hardware store may be all that you need to get the necessary items to make your home a safer place.
There’s so much more to be said about Fall Proofing so I wrote a separate article on that topic and it goes into more detail on these 3 core areas I mentioned above and much more. Check it out by clicking here to read it.
Helping Your Parents To Accept Changes
When it comes to senior proofing a home, the task most often falls on the adult children of the aging parent – and that can be a real challenge sometimes simply because it means that things have to change.
And for seniors (as well as many others) – change is not very easy to do.
The most difficult aspect of change is the loss of control. That’s not just for anyone who is aging, that’s true for most everyone.
But for the elderly, it’s much more acute. After all, they are probably already losing some independence whether it’s physical or cognitive and acknowledging the loss of even more in their lives can be very difficult.
For this reason, it’s very important to include your parents in the process as much as possible. This way, all of you are working together towards the best solution(s) to help keep them safe in the home.
It’s been my experience that this normally takes multiple conversations over many months, or longer. I recommend to start as soon as possible – don’t wait until the time when you have to make a decision.
Make very small decisions, small changes and go from there.
Here’s a good video by The Property Brothers on some ideas on senior proofing a home. Although, they recommend adding some area rugs, I would avoid that and instead use any of the anti-slip flooring products that I recommend.
13 Of The Best Decluttering Tips For Aging Parents
As an Occupational Therapist working in South Florida, the majority of patients that I saw were elderly. Many of those patients ended up in the rehabilitation unit because they fell and suffered a fracture and/or a head injury.
And many of those patients fell in their own home. I remember some of their stories which included:
- I was just taking out the garbage and I tripped over the rug by the front door.
- I was walking with a basket of laundry and my toe hit the end of the coffee table (because there was only a 10 inch space between the coffee table and the recliner) and I fell.
- I was taking a casserole dish out of the oven and forgot to clear space for it on the counter so I pushed some things off (they fell on the floor) and then when I went to pick them up I got dizzy and fell.
These stories and countless more give you an idea of how, in a split second, the clutter in a room can contribute to a fall which can easily end up in months of rehab and sometimes, no recovery.
These tips below work in every room throughout the house. The bathroom, the kitchen, the living room, the garage, etc.
Help to care for your parents just as they cared for you and talk with them about each of these very useful tips.
So here are my tips on decluttering to help senior proof a home.
- Talk it over first – first and foremost, talk it over with your parent or the senior you are caring for. It’s important that they understand what is happening, why the decision to declutter is important and that they are included in the process.
- Take it easy – in other words, do a little at a time. Your parent(s) are attached to these items in their home and moving or removing them can be very disturbing and stressful for them. So, I would recommend to break the project up into very small chunks. One drawer at a time. Instead of tackling an entire room, work on the closet or the shelf unit or hope chest, etc.
The important step here is to create and keep to a schedule. Once a week, once every other week, whatever it is. Stick to it and do not change it. By doing this you are prioritizing the task at hand and at the end of the day – this decluttering process is all about making the home safer for your senior loved ones.
- Store it away vs. giving it away – to further reduce the stress of these changes, instead of immediately giving away the items you are removing from the home store them. Just let your parent(s) know you are storing these things away. One year later, if those items were not used then you can attempt to approach your parent(s) about giving these items away. It may still be too stressful for them and you may have to keep the items in storage for longer but at least YOU know that these items are not necessary items.
- Avoid the cords – there should be no extension or electrical cords in or near any pathway throughout the home. All cords should be tucked away, ideally wrapped so that there is no chance of them getting caught by a foot, a cane, a walker, etc.
- Reconsider the furniture – one thing I noticed as an OT working with seniors, caring for my mother and helping my friends and relatives with their elderly parents is that many seniors have too much furniture and pieces that are too large for their living space. To make the home safer you want pathways that are at least 34 – 36 inches wide and free of clutter (that includes hallway tables and little end tables, etc.).
Sometimes just removing some furniture and then re-arranging what you have left (which should just be what is necessary) can do the trick.
- Dog and cat toys – if your parent(s) have a dog or cat, then they most likely have a pet toy or two laying around. It’s easy to see that toys like this can be a hazard for anyone but especially for someone with poor balance or poor vision or uses a mobility device. I would recommend to designate an area or a container to hold these toys when they are not being played with.
- Storage and more storage – adding more storage like cabinets, furniture with built in storage, shelves, etc. goes a long way in reducing clutter as long as the items that are being used to store things are not creating more clutter. I like anything that is built in, on the wall and/or replaces an existing piece of furniture. Things like ottomans with built in storage, bed with drawers in the base, etc. Just do an Image Search on Google like this one and you’ll get plenty of ideas.
Another great idea for small spaces is a behind the door shelf unit like this one from Amazon. This works especially well in bathrooms so check it out.
- Create specific spaces for hobbies – my mother was a master at knitting and crocheting. We put all her yarn and tools for this hobby on one shelf in her hall closet. We also got her a basket with a handle that she kept by her spot on the sofa where her current knitting or crochet project was kept. This prevented her from having to get up often to get supplies. And since everything was in one basket, she could just easily lift the basket onto the sofa making everything an easy and safe reach.
- All that mail – many seniors receive a lot of mail, especially catalogs and junk mail. I recommend to create a space for all this mail that also includes all items related to the mail. Things like envelopes, stamps, etc. Keep a garbage can nearby as well as a shredder. If your parent has balance issues, I would recommend to add a stackable mail sorter so that as they go through the mail, if something needs to be filed, they can simply put it in the sorter and you or a caregiver can take care of filing it away for them.
- Put everyday items within easy reach – things that are used every day should be very easy (and safe) to reach. This may seem like you’re creating more clutter but if you remove the unnecessary items you should hopefully have plenty of room for what is used daily.
In my mother’s bathroom, she used her electric toothbrush, liquid soap, eye drops and moisturizer every day, twice a day. She kept all of these items in her lower cabinet because her countertop was filled with knick-knacks. We removed all but one of her knick-knacks and we had plenty of room for the things she needed.
- Refrigerators and pantries – when it comes to organizing, decluttering and keeping items within easy reach don’t forget that all these recommendations are also to be applied to refrigerators, the pantry and other cabinets and shelves.
- Don’t forget the shower – you may not think of clutter in the shower but I have seen some very dangerous shower stalls filled with multiple bottles, sponges, etc. Installing some kind of organizer in the shower stall can help but you still want to keep the clutter down as much as possible. Read my article on 10 Amazing Tips on Creating Safe Showers For Seniors for more information.
- Plan it out – when my mother qualified for hospice home care I moved in with her to care for her. I knew there was some decluttering to do but I wasn’t sure where to start. So, I spent the first week observing everything my mother did and how she did it. This gave me a list of things that I needed to work on. This “plan” made it much easier for me to discuss the issue with my mother and it reduced the stress greatly on the whole decluttering process.
The basic concept behind removing the excess items in a home for seniors is to remove obstacles that they can trip over and/or bump into.
You want very clear pathways whether or not they use an assistive device like a cane or a walker or a wheelchair to move about in the home.
It’s also important to prevent older adults (especially if they are compromised in some way) from over-reaching or having to be put in a position which compromises their balance. This too can cause falls resulting in injuries.
Some Ideas On Senior Friendly Furniture And Accessories
My personal experience with making changes to my mother’s furniture, etc. was that it was extremely difficult. She had a hard time accepting the changes.
We found that the best way for us to approach it was to do it in small increments and the process took a couple of years but eventually, we finished the project as best we could. We knew our mother was safer for it.
The most important rule to know is the importance of arranging the furniture in such a way so that there’s PLENTY of space (a very minimum of 34 – 36 inches) to reduce fall hazards and accommodate safe mobility. This sometimes means removing some furniture.
So here are some home safety tips and product recommendations on how to make the living environment safer for your elderly loved one.
Shelf and Storage Units
Most people don’t think about it but I vividly remember a patient of mine who lost his balance, grabbed on to his wall unit and fell with the wall unit falling on top of him. His injuries were much worse than if he had just fallen.
From that time on, I recommended to all my patients (and their families / caregivers) to bolt things like wall units, shelves, etc. onto the wall.
Lights are a device most seniors and caregivers don’t think about adding to the home. And they can be such an inexpensive and easy way to make it safer, for everyone.
You can use plug in lights or battery powered lights. I like to use a combination of both because there can never be too many lights! Place them everywhere, but especially in those areas that are used at night time. For example, the path from the bed to the bathroom, the pathway to and from the kitchen, etc.
Motion sensor lights are also an excellent lighting addition. Most people put these in the garage and outdoors but I like putting them in the laundry room, hallways and I’ve even seen them in the bathroom.
If your parent has a floor lamp by their favorite recliner or sofa please make sure that the lamp is secured to the ground or the wall or at the very least, tucked away behind furniture.
The variety of products available that can help to make floors safer for seniors has grown in the last few years. From anti slip clear strips to coatings to put on existing floors to treads on stairs and outdoor steps – there are several options to choose from.
Non Slip Rugs and Mats
The first thing an Occupational Therapist will usually recommend to senior proof a home is to replace throw rugs and mats with non slip versions. I know that was usually what I would have to say during my home safety assessments.
The use of non-slip rugs and mats in areas such as bathrooms, kitchens and bedrooms (actually throughout the entire house) are a must have for any senior who is aging in place. It not only helps to prevent falls but it can also help to cushion a fall as much as possible.
Lift chairs (aka Power Lift Recliners) are an amazing product for seniors who have difficult getting up from a sitting position. I have several elderly relatives who use them and love them and honestly, I can’t imagine a better gift to give to any elderly person who needs help getting up from a chair.
Getting Help To Stand Up
The Stander EZ Stand-N-Go is a wonderful product to help anyone who has trouble standing from a sitting position on the sofa. The Stander Security Pole & Curve Grab Bar is another great product that can be installed by the bed, in the bathroom, by a kitchen chair, etc. Check out these products here.
Proper Height Beds
The general rule is that the best bed height is between 20 and 23 inches from the floor to the top of the mattress but that’s not necessarily appropriate for elderly adults.
If your parents’ bed is too high or too low for them to safely get in and out of, I strongly recommend that you purchase a new frame that is an appropriate height.
If they use a wheelchair, you want the height of the bed to be as close as possible to the height of the seat of the wheelchair.
If your parent(s) has fallen out of the bed previously I would suggest to get a bed as low to the ground as possible but only if you have the manpower and/or equipment to help them stand up safely. If possible, the recommendation here would be an electric adjustable height bed frame.
These days, there are many varieties of adjustable bed bases that provide elevated foot and head positions. They can be purchased online or at any furniture or mattress store. These types of beds may be more comfortable for your elderly parent and if they make it easier for them to get in and out of bed, then it’s a consideration.
Avoiding Sharp Corners
My mother had an extremely large square wooden coffee table in her living room. It had sharp corners and in the last few months of her life she banged into those corners several times causing cuts and bruises that would not heal because of her medical condition. I’ll be honest with you, we were never able to get her to let go of that piece of furniture.
We tried our best to persuade her to replace it with a round coffee table that would be a bit smaller and less likely to injure her but we were not successful. It does not mean that you won’t be.
Generally, furniture that has sharp corners and has glass (such as a glass table top) should not be part of a senior’s home. If possible, replace them with more “elderly friendly” furniture that in the end will prove to be safer for them.
Using Assistive Devices To Fall Proof A Home
I can’t discuss the concept of senior proofing and fall proofing without addressing the need for assistive devices. These days, there are so many amazing tools available to help elderly individuals age in place safely. Let’s go over what they are and how they can help.
Grab bars and handrails are not just for bathrooms. Use them throughout the house as needed. In the kitchen, into and out of the front door, in the bedroom, by the recliner, down the hallway, etc.
Read About The Different Types Of Grab Bars Available
Bed Rails – Wedge Pillows – Bolsters – Bed Alarms
There are several types of bed rails that can be installed onto existing bed frames and one that we recommend is the Bed Rail Safety Side Guard. It extends partially down the side of the bed.
Wedge pillows are great for supporting a senior’s body, as well as for keeping them from falling out of the bed. They are usually triangle-shaped, although you can find rectangular wedges that are used for supporting and elevating the knees.
We like the Posey Soft Rail Double Bolster system. It has a flat pad that you place under the sleeper and foam wedges that fit on either side of them. The wedges don’t move around because they are held in place via a hook and loop that attach to the mattress, ensuring they stay in place. It also comes with a removable, washable cover.
My personal favorite assistive device for beds is the bed alarm. Our favorite is the Smart Caregiver bed alarm. It’ wireless and cord free which is a big plus.
Raised toilet seats, shower chairs and transfer benches are more tools that you can use to help minimize your parent’s fall risk. Read About The Different Types Of Toilet Seats Available.
If the fall risk for your senior loved one is high and they get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom I would recommend the use of a bedside commode. I know it may be met with some resistance and if it is then I would recommend a bed alarm (as I mentioned above) so that at least someone else in the household can be alerted that they are getting up from the bed or need to get up.
Shower and Tub Benches
Although there are a few new innovative designs for shower chairs such as the Healthcraft Invisia SerenaSeat Fold-Away shower seat and Swivel Sliding Transfer Benches, for the most part – shower chairs and tub transfer benches are the same as they have been for a few decades.
The process of choosing a shower chair or bench depends on the needs of your elderly parent(s) and the design of the bathroom that they are using.
Needless to say, there are several factors to consider. You can read more about the different products we recommend here.
Medical Alert System and Other Tech Products
These days with the advent of Alexa and Google home products, it’s so much easier to set up some kind of alert system or emergency response system for anyone living in the house. Along with a cell phone, these smart devices can be a life saver.
Both Google Home and Alexa allow you to call 911 but you need an external device to do this.
Alexa, however, has an Alert A Buddy skill that can call up to 3 people that you previously set up in case of an emergency.
It used to be that having a medical alert device hanging around your neck was the only way to do this – so we’ve come a long way!
Here is a list of some other useful products that I can personally recommend to senior proof your home:
- Behind the door shelf unit
- Walk in tubs
- Hand held shower heads
- Senior friendly faucet handles
- Portable Showers
- Adjustable height beds
- Alexa Devices
- Google Home Devices
These products along with the techniques that I’ve mentioned will help you to senior proof the home that your parent(s) are living in. This in turn can give them a more independent life and make them safer and hopefully give them a much happier rest of their days!
Compensating For Memory Problems
Memory problems is an unfortunate side effect of growing older (for most adults). This can pose a problem when it comes to things like…
- remembering to take medication
- leaving the stove and/or oven on
- leaving windows / doors open and unsecured
- getting lost while driving (even to familiar places)
- generally losing things like keys, eyeglasses, etc.
I wrote an article on What Are Some Things To Do For Seniors With Memory Problems – it goes into great detail on what you can do to help senior proof the home for someone with cognitive issues.
To give you a summary of the kinds of solutions available for memory issues:
- Do not correct someone with memory loss – it only leads to anxiety and confusion for your senior parent.
- Keep tasks and activities to a schedule.
- Use notes and signs throughout the home.
- Take advantage of Alexa and Google Home to help.
- Use other tools such as pill dispensers, GPS products, etc.
Fire Safety Tips For Seniors
We can’t talk about senior proofing without talking about a fire safety plan.
I know, I know. Most of us don’t have a fire safety plan but the stats show that 40% of all fire deaths in 2015 involved seniors so it just makes sense to provide the right equipment and have a viable fire safety plan in place.
The basic equipment recommended is:
- smoke detectors
- carbon monoxide detectors
- the proper fire extinguisher OR fire suppressant canisters OR fire blankets
- stove alarms
- gas stove safety knobs
I have an elderly neighbor who enjoys placing candles throughout her home for ambiance. This is beautiful, of course but can be a safety hazard.
If you (or your senior loved one) enjoys this practice I would strongly recommend to replace those traditional candles with battery powered ones. The Enpornk Candles are made out of real wax and they include timers which is great if you have a tendency to forget to turn them off!
Home Security For Seniors
My mother never wanted to install a home security system. She complained it was too expensive and too complicated to use.
Those two factors are probably true for the majority of seniors but that doesn’t make their home more secure!
What we ended up doing with our mother was to compromise. We installed security bars in her sliding glass doors, hung a set of bells on the doorknob to her front door (she had extremely good hearing) and we were just about to set up an Alexa device for her before she became very ill and passed away.
I would recommend to speak with your parent(s) and come to some compromise with them on what can be done to make the home more secure.
The type of home modifications you will want to do to your home to safely senior proof it depend entirely on the structure of the home itself (how big is it, how is it laid out, etc.) as well as the needs of the older adult(s) living in the home.
But generally, home modifications usually include:
- Widening of doorways – this is done to make it easier (or possible) to go through the doorway with a wheelchair or walker. The rule of thumb is that doorways should be a minimum of 36 inches wide.
- Indoor and Outdoor Ramps – there are many different types of ramps but most people think of an outdoor ramp. Truthfully, there are many homes that have thresholds in the doorways that make it very difficult to push a wheelchair over and can sometimes create a trip hazard for seniors using a walker or a cane. Take a look at our article on portable ramps – it has a lot of information on all types of ramps for indoor and outdoor use.
- Flooring Issues – so many seniors (1 in 4) fall every year and the injuries and medical costs that are associated with those falls can be serious. That’s why a major home modification that I strongly recommend are non-slip floors and products to make your floors non-slip.
- Changes In The Bathroom – probably the room in the house that gets the most attention when it comes to senior proofing is the bathroom. And for good reason! There’s a lot in there that can create a dangerous situation for many seniors. You may have to remove a bathtub, remove a high threshold into the shower, replace or modify the toilet, add a shower bench and change the shower head to a hand held version and of course add grab bars throughout the bathroom.
Here is a list of resources that you can contact to help you with home modifications.
- National Directory of Home Modification and Repair Resources
- House Doctors
- Handyman Matters
- Elder Helpers
- AARP Handyman Program
- In Colorado – CAPABLE program
Kathleen Cameron, senior director with the National Council on Aging, said falls are the number one cause of injuries and death among older Americans. According to Cameron, that’s increasingly attributed to chronic conditions experienced by many Baby Boomers.Publicnewsservice.org
Making The Home Easier To Manage
Part of senior proofing involves making the daily tasks of home management easier and safer.
This involves a large variety of issues such as…
- Making a two story home easier and safer with stair lifts, stair treads and more. (read more)
- Using assistive devices such as Roomba, grab bars, lighting, etc. (read more)
- Asking for help when needed by using house cleaning services, handymen and plumbers.
- Possibly downsizing to a more manageable space (maybe even a condo or townhome).
- Using products with easy to open caps – this includes laundry detergents, bleach, pill bottles, etc.
Frequently Asked Questions
Does Medicare pay for home modifications?
Unfortunately no. Medicare does not pay for home modifications such as widening doorways, building ramps, etc. Even if you have a doctor’s prescription – these types of changes do not fall into the category of durable medical equipment so therefore, they do not pay for it. BUT – if you qualify, Medicaid might pay. Contact your Medicaid office for more information.
What resources are available to help pay for home modifications for seniors?