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7 wise ways to ‘elder proof’ your home

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Through improving medical services and healthier lifestyles seniors are living longer than ever. Yet the longer seniors reside in homes that aren't properly suited to their particular safety requirements, the greater is their risk of suffering a personal injury.

Savvy homeowners with seniors as residents are embracing the practice of "elder proofing" a home. While in some cases this may require extensive remodeling, there are many things homeowners can do with just a toolbox, some smart ideas and a weekend.

Here are seven handy tips to pursue:

Let There Be Light
--As we age our eyesight tends to deteriorate, which means that a home with dark shadows and gloomy hallways can become a safety hazard. If the problem can occur night or day, install low voltage track or recessed lighting that can remain on. You can also illuminate the path from the bedroom to the bathroom with nightlights. Connect them to outlets with timers so they'll turn on at sunset, or consider a motion-activated nightlight that turns on when someone moves.

Floor Safety--According the Centers for Disease Control, about 33 percent of adults over 65 take a fall each year. One of the real culprits are throw rugs, which bunch up and become trip hazards. Forget the two-sided tape that tacks them down - throw rugs are best thrown away. Also make sure that tile or vinyl floors are not cleaned with any wax products that make them slippery.

Split Level--The floor plans of homes built in the 1970s and 80s often featured "sunken" living and family rooms accessible one or two steps down from the main floor level. This may have been hip when the home was new, but it's become known as a way to break a hip for seniors who own these homes today. Contractors recommend eliminating the sunken floor, or adding a handrail even for one or two steps.

There's also a big problem for many seniors with two-story homes. Negotiating stairs can be a problem and many eventually give up and live their lives downstairs. Stair lifts, in which you sit and ride up and down are effective although depending on their size they can be pricey ($8,000 to $15,000).

The wheelchair bound that need a ramp to get into their home may face another issue: Their property may not be big enough for the ramp they need. One answer could be a vertical platform lift. "These are like little elevators and they use a very small footprint," says Beth Kofsky of Home Assistive Technology in Miami. "If someone is in a mobile home that sits two feet off the ground, it's very easy to roll onto it, rise up to the door level, and go. Price-wise, they're around $4,000, which may compare very favorably to the cost of building a ramp outside your home."

Getting a Grip--Bathroom grab bars are a requirement for a mobility-challenged person. "Have the senior show you how he or she moves around in the bathroom, do they favor one side when they stand up or step into the shower?" says Ronnie Molles of Molles Life Services in Evanston, Ill. There are many different types of grab bars, including some high-end products that don't necessarily look like grab bars. Remember to follow directions carefully when installing, they generally have to be attached to wall studs in order to be effective.

Water Works--Hands that have lost their strength because of arthritis and other health issues may not be able to easily turn faucet and shower handle knobs. Depending on the space around the faucet, knobs can be easily replaced with levers. While you're at it, check the water heater to make sure the temperature is no higher than 120 degrees. Higher temperatures and someone's slower reflexes could create a nasty burn when bathing.

I Get Around--For someone who will have to move around in a wheelchair or scooter, life around their house can get difficult. "Most homes aren't built with wheelchairs in mind," says Lyn Gilbert a contractor and Certified Aging in Place Specialist based in Winter Park, Fla. "It takes some planning to make a home really work for someone confined to a wheelchair."

Interior doorways can be as narrow as 24 inches, which doesn't work when you've got a 32-inch wide wheelchair. A contractor can install new frames that will widen bathroom and bedroom doorways. If the doorway is just slightly too small, a swing-away hinge, which pulls the door away and helps open more space, could be the answer.

Curb Appeal--It's possible, and probably preferable, not to advertise that someone with limited mobility lives inside of a home. "The outdoor ramps I design don't look like wheelchair ramps, they look they're part of the home," says Gilbert. "That's important not just for safety but for home resale value."

Other things to do to the front of the home: make sure the address is clear and visible, the porch lighting is clear and keep a key lock box to let emergency staff or family get access inside. "If you have a decorative table or two near the front door, make sure it's secured to the wall so that the person can steady themselves before walking in if they need to," says Gilbert."

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