Age-in-Place Homes Should Be Safe Homes

An aging population that wants to age in place is finding it’s even easier with the right modifications at home. Did you know they’re also doctor-approved?

Home is where the heart is, no matter how old you are.

According to the 2020 U.S Census, 55.8 million Americans, or 16.8% of the total population, are over the age of 65. As this population ages, more and more seniors are expressing a strong desire to remain in their homes, maintain their independence and stay in a familiar environment.

Aging in place offers a multitude of benefits, including emotional well-being, a sense of familiarity and the ability to stay connected with surrounding neighbors, friends and family. But to stay independent, health and safety must be top of mind.

Dr. Edward Babigumira, a board-certified specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Van Matre Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital, 950 S. Mulford Road in Rockford, points out that getting older inevitably means changes to your physical attributes and abilities.

“As we all age, all of our physiologic body function and systems start to slow down,” says Babigumira. “As you can imagine, as you lose vision and your muscle strength decreases, you become a very high risk for falling.”

This risk is, indeed, high. According to statistics collected by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), American seniors receive a fall-related injury every 11 seconds. And most falls happen in the home.

Michael Sullivan is well-versed in other fall-related statistics, like the AARP-related data showing 85% of seniors prefer to stay in their homes. The owner of Sullivan Home Improvement Solutions oversees the area’s only Certified Age in Place Specialist (CAPS) contracting company. Sullivan and his team are in a unique position to not only help seniors find ways to live comfortably in their home, but also to help them live there safely.

“Sullivan Home Improvement Solutions is specifically focused on fall prevention,” says Sullivan. “We provide solutions for accessibility and mobility issues that happen as we age. We install a number of safety fixtures, including grab bar configurations and pulldown safety seats and benches.”

It should come as no surprise that Sullivan and his team place such an emphasis on fall prevention. For a senior who falls , the effects can be life-altering. Babigumira has seen it firsthand.

“By far, the most common injury sustained by falls with senior citizens is hip fractures,” he says.  “Unfortunately, they are one of the most common causes of mortality in senior citizens and probably the No.1 cause of a senior losing their independence.”

No matter how young at heart someone might feel, recovery from fractures slows as we grow older. For seniors, falls can be complicated by osteoporosis, a bone disease caused by the degeneration of bone density that leads to decreased bone strength.

“Osteoporosis puts them at risk for more fractures and a slow healing process,” says Babigumira.
Falling injuries are also a leading cause of head trauma, something else that Babigumira and other medical professionals take seriously.

“Traumatic brain injuries can lead to subdural hematoma or bleeding in the brain,” says Babigumira. “This can have severe consequences of cognitive decline and can result in death.”

For Sullivan, preventing the tragic outcome of a fall starts in one room, because according to AARP, 80% of falls take place in the bathroom. This where the majority of his modifications begin.
“This is a wet area,” he explains. “Our primary work is in tub-to-shower conversions.”

A conversion like this transforms a precarious, slippery bathtub into a walk-in shower that can be fitted with grab bars, handheld showerheads and benches, to make sure a person stays on their feet while getting clean. Sullivan also offers tub-to-tub conversions that replace tubs with a walk-in version that is safer and easier to enter and exit.

“We address the height of the tub to minimize the amount of step-in,” Sullivan says.

Staircases can also be hazardous. Seniors who regularly climb up and down the stairs put themselves at risk of a traumatic fall that can be hard to recover from. Sullivan Home Improvement Solutions offers a number of options to address stairs.

“We provide a line of stair lifts, both interior and exterior, to provide assistance,” says Sullivan.
His most popular option gets rid of stair climbing altogether.

“Our first-floor laundry program was developed to eliminate the need to go to the basement,” he says.

Problems with one’s vision can also come into play.

“Cataracts, macular degeneration, and diabetic retinopathy in diabetic patients are the most common illnesses that affect eyesight with aging,” says Babigumira.  “As we grow older, we are also more prone to conditions like glaucoma, which can result in blindness. These can cause a very high risk for falls.”

Sullivan approaches the problems of sight impairment and vision loss in two ways.

“Diminished sight is addressed through lighting and bold colors,” he says. “We recommend that a bathroom shower pan should be white, for instance, to provide a more striking contrast between the shower and the surrounding flooring, so you can see where the threshold is.”

Sullivan installs additional LED lighting in showers and alcoves to further improve visibility.

“We can provide more lighting throughout the house, particularly near staircases,” he says. “We always consider improved lighting to be important.”

When a senior is sidelined by an injury or illness, Babigumira and the rest of the team at Van Matre Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital often prescribe therapy programs to be done at home.

“We use an excellent case management team to have long discussions about the medical issues and the recovery process,” he says. “We usually have something called a home exercise program. This is a series of exercises that help the patient during recovery from injuries.”

Sullivan works with a number of clients on these kinds of therapy programs. He speaks with physical therapists and other home care professionals to make sure his modifications complement their services.

“We work with occupational and physical therapists so that we can assist in the homeowner’s rehabilitation,” he says. “We want to make sure that what we’re doing is mobile and safe.”

George Burns, the comedian and actor, once quipped, “You can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to get old.” For aging homeowners, spending their twilight years in the comfort of their home, surrounded by a familiar environment, might be part of that equation.

Aging in place offers a number of benefits, including emotional well-being, reduced stress and continued engagement with the surrounding community. And, it’s doctor-recommended.

“As the saying goes, home is best,” says Babigumira. “Being at home and having a sense of independence helps senior citizens who might be prone to depression and cognitive decline.”
Sullivan agrees.

“The biggest reason why so many seniors want to stay in their home is familiarity,” he says. “Comfort is also important. The features we install not only make the home safer for the client, but these are also beneficial to their friends and family. When a client’s home is safe, they’re more likely to invite people to visit. To me, those are the main reasons why so many seniors want to age in place.”