Companies embrace home modification demands


By Brian Goslow

Gone are the days when you’d need your own carpenter — or begin a not-so-always successful search for one — to install an access ramp to help someone with impaired mobility get up your steps.

Similarly, you no longer have to worry about a fall due to poor lighting during a late night trip to the bathroom. Building supply companies have finally caught up to the reality that the much-heralded influx of retired baby boomers is here — and they need help to safely stay in their homes.

“People remember when the only choice with the ramp was a fairly rigorous construction project,” said industrial designer and gerontologist Patricia Moore. “It was difficult, it maybe ruined the lawn and it wasn’t very affordable.” That’s slowly changed as new products have come on the market that take out much of the aggravation of home accessibility modification projects and no longer entail having to sacrifice the look of your property.

“There are so many choices now to make this something that complements your home and gives you curb appeal, where before the choice was something less than desirable,” Moore said.

To that end, Lowe’s has jumped on the bandwagon with a modular ramp that can be configured to utilize existing walkways and driveways; to make the process easier, customers can work with an in-store specialist, have a free home consultation or design their own ramp via the store’s website, “You can design specifically to your home, not just in terms of size and shape, but style,” Moore explained.

This process avoids the need to dig up your lawn or remove flowerbeds or trees to make a ramp fit. As a bonus, the ramps are designed to be fashionable and not decrease the value of your home.

Where ramps used to be installed for wheelchair users, they now have multiple purposes. “You’re looking at taking care of little children who are learning to walk or when we’re running to the airport with our roller bag or when we have a piece of furniture delivered or when mom and dad come visit us for the holidays,” Moore said. “Everyone in our circle of family and friends is accommodated when we take care of the danger point that is stairs and steps.”

Although their parents may not talk about it, adult children may notice it’s time to make it easier for their mother and father to get into their home. There are signs to watch for, most notably that mom and dad aren’t going out as much as they used to.

“Steps and stairs become absolutely frightening for us if we’re starting to lose balance or if our mobility has changed — and it’s going to happen if we live long enough,” Moore said. “We want to look at how to create an alternative by having accessible steps, which is a nicely designed ramp.

“That’s usually the first point of home modification — to make the house more useable and safer.”

Should you decide to design your own outside ramps, Lowe’s website gives you the ability “to actually play just like an architect or designer,” Moore said. “You can lay out your yard, put in patio features, trees, shrubs — everything that really determines where and how you’re going to place the ramp. If you decide to go ahead and install it yourself, it’s an easy and affordable weekend project.”

Moore noted most homes have two entry points — one in the front with the other in the side or rear. In considering a ramp, you have to consider which design solution is best for you. As these kinds of items become more widely used, the old stereotype of an entranceway needing expensive major reconstruction and an ugly cement platform for the base of the ramp is slowly becoming a thing of the past.

“You’re not stuck with the kinds of construction modifications and costs that you used to have because this is a modular system that doesn’t require any kind of concrete pads,” Moore said. “You can configure it in any direction that you need and allow yourself to put in the style, the railings, the lights, all the features you could possibly want so that it complements the style of your existing home.”

But once inside the home, inside accessibility also needs to be considered. Step one should be keeping the walking areas of the home clear. “You don’t want to have any kind of scatter rugs or throw rugs that could become a slip and fall hazard,” Moore said. “You want to make sure you have clear pathways and if you need to, you can put in simple fixes with new flooring that is more forgiving and not as slippery.”

One way to eliminate the possibility of falls is the addition of lights that create safer pathways by improving nighttime and low-light days visibility. “With energy saving devices like sensors, you don’t have to go around the house and turn every light on, but rather the lighting can anticipate your presence,” Moore said. “When we enter a space, the light on the end table can go on and safely light our way or we can have sconces on the walls to light the hallway.”

Good lighting is essential in the kitchen and the bathroom. “We still have too many headlines where someone has reached for a vial of medicine and really didn’t see that label very well and makes a mistake,” Moore said. “That can be a life threatening moment when if we had appropriate lighting, we wouldn’t make those mistakes.”

While these changes are normally associated with older folk, Moore said they would have benefits for everyone in a household. “What I try to do as a designer and a gerontologist is tell people we’re not just talking about what happens at late life, we’re talking about all of the generations living in homes and communities simultaneously,” she said.

Bathroom modifications can be helpful to the entire family. “Just adding the simple feature of a hand-held showerhead that benefits everyone, whether you’re kneeling down to wash the dog or you’re bathing a grandchild or you’re taking care of yourself,” Moore said. “Having that adjustability in height is always a nice idea.”

Toilet seats that allow for easier access for someone with lower mobility are now readily available, and adjustable grab bars for the toilet and tub area, once thought to be an ugly but necessary addition for medicinal purposes, are now designed so they become an added feature to the style of your bathroom. “You can add towels to them and they serve a multiple purpose,” Moore said. “It really is that kind of win-win thing we’re looking for with our budgets today.”

Moore said some communities around the country have started to enact safety mandates in housing regulations to ensure a home is safe for all ages. “Some ordinances are being put into place to help someone not just delivering a piano, but fire and safety personnel, and the police, for that emergency when someone has to leave the house by a gurney when an ambulance comes. “When we make for safety and usability for ourselves, we’re actually extending that to every member of the family and community,” said Moore.

“I always like to remind people that in 1900, our lifespan was 42 years of age. It’s very interesting how quickly we’ve become an elder society and it’s good business to take care of every consumer, but especially our elders,” she said.

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