The secret to making a house safe and easy to use is found in the details
It looks like a typical room. But it's not.
Knobs have been replaced by U-shaped pulls. Levers run the faucets. Closets slide open at the slightest tug.
When John Kelly Built an addition to his Forest Hills house for his mother-in-law, he focused on the details. "There's no such thing as a small detail,:" says Kelly, who runs a general contracting company called Kelly Kreations, Inc. "Details are the most important thing."
Light switches that respond to the touch, nonskid tiles, rounded counter top corners - these seemingly small things can make a big difference. More people are seeking to make their homes safer and easier to use, rather than accepting the limitations of may conventional houses, limitations that can put one who's growing frail in danger.
"More and more people all over the United States are in need of accessible housing," says Eddie Ferrentino, an Ocala contractor who specializes in remodeling homes to make them easier to use.
The Florida Alliance for Aassistive Services and Technologhy, called FAAST, says more than 1.4 million Floridians have problems carrying out two or more tasks of daily life, such as bathing or getting a meal. Most of them are 65 or older and many are struggling to remain independent in their homes.
Objects that mean nothing to an able person - stairs or a knob-handled shower - can become dangerous obstacles to one whose sight is failing or whose body is being twisted by arthritis or osteoporosis. For older people, falls are the leading cause of death in the home. Another frequent accident is scalding from hot shower water.
Small changes can remove a home's dangerous and limiting obstacles. The cost depends on the job. A homeowner could replace door and faucet knobs for $100 to $200. First, one should look at the occupants' needs, says John Salmen of Universal Designers & Consultants in Rockville, MD. "Look at where they have difficulties. Then look at what they want to do."
Hearing loss is common among older people. Salmen says carpet and draperies can help smooth out sharp noises and distorting echoes.
One of the first things Kelly considers is lighting. Older eyes need about three times more light than younger eyes to see the same things. Outside his mother-in-law's apartment, he installed sensor lights that go on when they detect movement outside the house. They shine around the edges of the house directly at the front door.
Inside lighting is important, too, he says. He recommends both lamps and recessed lights, to spread the illumination evenly and cut down on glare. He uses skylights to bring in natural light, which can be soothing. He also likes to coat the walls with off-white or antique white paint, which gently reflects other colors and creates a spacious feeling in a small room.
How one operates the lights is also important. Rocker or sensor switches, which respond to the touch, are best, he says. Many glow, thereby doing double duty as night lights. Switches and outlets should be located where they can be reached easily. Switches about 33 inches from the floor while outlets should be about 20 inches.
For someone with arthritis, turning a knob can be excruciating. So instead of knobs, Kelly uses U-shaped pulls on the cabinet doors and drawers, and levers on the passage doors and faucets. "These are all things that can be found in local home centers. They may be a little more expensive, but they're well worth it."
Moving from room to room often is a challenge. Ramps are good for getting people safely in and out of their house. But once inside, Salmen says they also need a level, continuous corridor at least 3 feet wide. Doorways should be at least 32 inches wide to allow passage of a wheelchair. The one room that most people need the most help in is the bathroom, Ferrentino says.
In the bathroom Kelly built for his mother-in-law, levers, not knobs, operate the faucets. At the sink, an 1/2 gpm (.5) aerator controls the flow and prevents the water from getting hot enough to scald.
Kelly's masterpiece is the big roll-in-shower. With no curb, it's easy to get in and out of, with grab bars lining the walls and soap dishes placed high and low.
Grab bars run throughout the bathroom. And here, the homeowner doing his or her own work needs to be especially careful. " Some people try to put these things into the tile and it's a disaster," Ferrentino says. Most building codes require that a grab bar in any part of a house be able to withstand 250 pounds of weight. To do this, it must be attached to a wood frame stud behind the wall. Grab bars can be arranged in a variety of ways throughout a bathroom. The builder should be guided by the needs of the person who will be using them, Salmen says.
Another Crucial room is the kitchen.
One model comes from GE Appliances. It's called the "Real Life Design Kitchen." And it was built using standard materials. "Our message to builders is 'Hey guys, you can do this with the materials you have now, '" says Brian Sherry, GE Appliances' market development manager. "Any builder can do these things," Sherry says. "It's just a matter of thinking about things a little differently."
Still, this kind of work is foreign to a lot of contractors and one should shop carefully, says Salmen. "You need to have a good feeling about the person and their willingness to listen to you." he says. "You need someone who can do the small things, but also knows the big things, because the job may require new plumbing or rewiring. Most important is their attention to detail, " he said.
For those who don't want to hire a contractor, there's help.
The Center for Universal Design is at North Carolina State University, Box 8613, Raleigh, NC 27695-8613 For a fee, they will look at a do-it-yourselfer's plan and give advise. Phone 1-800-647-6777
FAAST The Florida Alliance for Assistive Services & Technology provides information about technology products and services to help disable people of all ages. They have local offices, check for one near you. Toll free: 1-888-788-9216 In Tampa call 844-7591
AARP American Association of Retired Persons. Publications are free to members. "The Perfect Fit: Creative Ideas for a Safe and Livable Home" - "The Do Able Renewable Home: making Your Home Fit Your Needs"