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Making Home Modifications for Loved Ones in Your Care

Caregiving Advisory Panel expert Elinor Ginzler offers tips for making a home safe

Is there a company or organization that can inspect my 85-year-old mother-in-law's home and advise us about how it can be made safer, especially the bathroom?

While almost all of us want to stay in our homes for as long as we can, it's important to consider home safety when making that decision. Fortunately, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), in conjunction with AARP, has developed the Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) training designation for remodelers and contractors. These specialists have been trained in design modifications that can make homes safe for a lifetime. They can do a room-by-room assessment of the home and make recommendations for modifications. To find a CAPS certified contractor near you, go to NAHB's website.

Cargiving Q&A: Caralee Adams

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Consider home safety when making the decision to age at home.

My wife and I are 75-plus and are looking to move into a condo. We are fairly mobile now, but are looking ahead. Can you advise us on what changes we should consider during construction, such as modifying door sizes or installing a stair power chair?

Congratulations on the move and for wanting to live somewhere that can meet your needs as you get older. Here are a few items to put on your construction wish list:

  • Kitchen countertops at a variety of levels so you can work at the counter standing or sitting.
  • Doorways that are 36 inches wide if possible, making it easy to move from room to room.
  • Lever door handles and rocker light switches to make it easy to open doors and turn on lights.
  • Cabinet door and drawer handles that are C- or D-shaped.
  • Grab bars in the bathroom — they can be disguised as towel racks.
  • Built-in seat in the shower — it can convert your bathroom from a safety hazard to a spa.
  • Staircase wide enough and straight enough to handle a stair lift, or stackable closets that can be converted to an elevator, if your condo isn't all on one floor.

My mom is going to be moving in with me. How can I make my house safe for her?

It's so important to think about safety and comfort when having your parent join your household. Everything you do for her will make your home better for everyone in the family. You can go room by room to determine how safe it is using the AARP home safety checklist.

Don't get too overwhelmed by all the suggestions. Pay special attention to the bathroom, where, unfortunately, most falls occur. Some of the ideas are pretty easy to do, such as having lever door handles instead of doorknobs. If you decide you need to do some more substantial changes that require a professional, find a contractor who is a Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS). The National Association of Home Builders lists builders and contractors with this certification on its website.

Do you know of any checklists or guides for trying to determine how an elderly parent can remain in his home safely?

You're in luck. AARP has great information on staying safe and comfortable at home, including a booklet, Home Modifications to Promote Independent Living, and a community guidebook on how to develop a home modification initiative (PDF).

Finally, check AARP's home safety checklist.

Will Medicare help pay for removing a tub and installing a walk-in shower? I'm living with my daughter, and we have a difficult time getting me in and out of the tub. (I've had hip replacement and spinal surgery.)

Unfortunately, Medicare does not pay for home modifications.

Here are some ideas for other possible funding sources:

Home modification and repair funds from Title 3 of the Older Americans Act. These funds are distributed by your area agency on aging (AAA). Contact the Eldercare Locator (800-677-1116,

Rebuilding Together, a national volunteer organization. Through its local affiliates, it assists low-income seniors with home modification efforts.

Insurance. Some long-term care insurance policies cover some home modification. Check your policy for details.

Finally, if converting a tub to a walk-in shower is not feasible, consider getting a bath chair that is wide enough to be placed both in the tub and on the bathroom floor. You can sit on it, and your daughter can help you swing your legs over the edge of the tub to then be seated in the tub for your shower. And get a hand-held shower head while you are making these changes. It provides even more control while bathing.

Elinor Ginzler, a member of the AARP Caregiving Advisory Panel, is senior director of the Center for Supportive Services at the Jewish Council for the Aging. She is also coauthor of Caring for Your Parents: The Complete Family Guide.

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