How can you stay safely in your own home for as long as possible? One of the secrets is doing a "walk through," assessing it for safety and identifying potential hazards. Depending on your situation, you can do an informal review of the home by yourself or your doctor can prescribe a professional "home accessibility assessment."
Persons planning to remodel their homes are wise to consider how their abilities might change in 10-20 years, thinking about future changes in vision, hearing, balance and other abilities which change as we grow older. The AARP has a couple of excellent publications, such as "The Do Able Renewable Home" which provides information about making your home more livable and safer as you age. The Internet has some great resources for home modifications and CBJ Community Development has helpful handouts on adding ramps, bathroom accessories and other features to the home.
Persons who have experienced recent changes in functional status, newly using a cane, walker, wheelchair, or have a history of recent falls are advised to seek a professional home assessment. With a doctor's referral, this Occupational Therapy service is usually covered by Medicare. The Occupational Therapist (O.T.) is especially trained in what to look for as she goes from room to room, making notes of recommendations. Following the home visit, the doctor and patient receive a written report of the recommended home modifications.
Jo Boehme is one of the Occupational Therapists at Bartlett Regional Hospital who regularly conducts home accessibility assessments for senior citizens throughout Juneau. Before she goes to the home, she becomes familiar with the patient's medical challenges, his/her particular needs, and the availability of care givers.
An O.T. home assessment begins outside of the home and evaluates how the homeowner enters and exits it. "Could you get out by yourself if there was an emergency such as a fire?" Boehme asks the homeowner. Stairways can be very hazardous, second only to bathrooms in incidence of accidents. If there are steps, she examines the height of the stairs, whether there are railings on both sides of the stairs, lighting, and whether they might become slippery. If a ramp is being considered, she advises about the proper slope and placement based on the size of the homeowner's lot.
Once inside the home, the O.T. looks for things which impede the ability to move around the home safely. Ideally, there should be a path throughout the home which has at least a 3-foot width. Excessive clutter, loose rugs, small animals, grandchildren's toys, uneven floors and electrical cords are all potential tripping hazards. Area rugs should either be removed, have skid-proof backing, or be tacked down. Cordless telephones are recommended to eliminate cords and to have at your fingertips throughout the day.
Of course, the bathroom is the area of the home in which most accidents occur. The bathroom should therefore be equipped to help avoid slipping or injury. Properly and securely mounted grab bars guard against loss of balance and falls.
These are just a few of the many items noticed during a home assessment. For a safe home which accommodates your unique needs and abilities, please contact your doctor or Bartlett's Occupational Therapy Department at 796-8431.
Marianne Mills oversees senior citizen nutrition and transportation programs in Juneau, Skagway, Sitka and Yakutat as a staff member of Southeast Senior Services, a program of Catholic Community Service. CCS assists all persons regardless of their faith.