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4 Remodeling Fixes to Keep Your Parents Safe at Home

Aging in place becomes possible with renovations that help prevent falls, give you peace of mind and are cost-effective in the long-term.

By Heidi Raschke

Your parents aren’t as mobile as they used to be, yet they want to remain in their home. They can still get dressed, fix meals and bathe themselves, so they don’t need a personal care assistant. And yet there are hazards everywhere.

The bathroom may be dark and slippery, the kitchen narrow, the stairs impossible to navigate. So what to do?

“Your No. 1 concern should be fall prevention,” says Amy Levner, manager of Housing and Livable Communities for AARP. “Start by doing an assessment of the home looking for hazards.”

Simply walk through the home thinking about your parents' needs and looking for anything that impedes their ability to get around as they go through their daily routine.

The first step is removing clutter such as throw rugs, Levner says, and it’s free. Another important consideration is lighting, she says. Making sure areas such as stairways, showers and kitchen sinks are well-lit also goes a long way toward fall prevention. Installing lighting in key places isn’t free, but it is fairly low-cost compared to other more involved home renovation projects.

That said, the truth is, to truly make your parents’ home livable for the long term, you’re likely going to need to invest some serious money in making some significant changes. (Same goes for making your home livable if they’re going to move in with you.)

Here are four common problems and home remodeling projects that could solve them. And before you balk at the costs, think about spending $70,000 a year for an assisted living facility. Suddenly, even an elevator may not seem so expensive.

Bathroom Slips

The bathroom is the most dangerous room in the house, the place where falls are most likely to happen, Levner says. A bathroom overhaul that includes installing grab bars, slip-resistant flooring and levered handles will go a long way toward keeping your parents safe in their home.

The big-ticket item in such a remodel is replacing the conventional step-in tub with a walk-in shower or tub that has a seat and a hand-held shower hose. Levner emphasizes the importance of step-free entry.

Cost consideration: Walk-in tubs go for about $3,000 to $6,000.

Threshold Traps

If step-free entry into the shower is crucial, so is step-free entry into the home. “You don’t want your loved one to become trapped in their home,” Levner says.

And while installing a ramp is an option for those who use wheelchairs, there are other less-stigmatizing renovations that can allow for ease of entry, says Bill Owens, an Ohio-based contractor who founded the Better Living Design Institute to educate fellow contractors nationwide about the benefits and standards of Universal Design. It, of course, depends on the layout of your home. Maybe it’s an entryway through the garage, for example.

Cost consideration:  It depends. You’ll want to get a few bids from reputable contractors.

Impassable Passageways

Many older homes weren’t built to accommodate canes, walkers or wheelchairs. The hallways and doorways are simply too narrow for those with mobility issues.

Widening passageways to at least 32 inches — ideally 36 inches — definitely requires a major renovation. And it’s not something you want to leave until the last minute, says Owens.


“My mom was in her 80s, and she thought she would do the renovations when she got old,” he says. He encourages his clients not to wait so long. “When a life-changing event happens, that is the worst time to do a project.”

Cost consideration: It all depends on the size of the project. Levner suggests contacting the National Association of Home Builders to find a local professional with expertise in Universal Design who can give you sense of the expense.

Stairs Scares

When people think about stairs, the first thing they think about is mobility, but it’s also important to think about eyesight, Levner says. A flight of wooden stairs can look like a ski slope to those with diminished eyesight, she says. If that’s the issue for your parents, simply installing a tasteful no-slip black strip on the edge of each step is an inexpensive fix. Adding lighting along the stairs is helpful, too.

If mobility is more the concern, there are a few possible solutions. For starters, Levner says, you may want to consider installing a second handrail. If that’s not enough it’s time to talk about a stairlift or even an elevator.

“Stairlifts are a nice short-term solution for those who truly can’t safely go up and down the stairs,” Levner says. They are temporary, and when it’s time to sell the home they can be removed.

Cost consideration: Owens says a stairlift can cost anywhere from about $2,000 for a used one to more than $10,000, depending on the lift of the stairs and how much reinforcement is needed.

Another solution for dealing with stairs may be an elevator. Owens talks about a client with a three-story lake home who liked to entertain and had trouble with her knees. She had an elevator installed, and now has a giant dumbwaiter for her big grocery runs as well as a solution for her mobility issues. And she increased the resale value of the home by adding a luxury item.

But elevators are tough sells, Owens says. Not only are they expensive, they’re a little outside the box for some people.

He had another set of clients — a couple who could easily afford an elevator but thought it too ostentatious. They worried about what the neighbors would think of the high-end upgrade. They ultimately decided to move into an assisted living facility that cost more per year rather than make the change to their home.

Cost consideration: Elevators cost $30,000 to $40,000, Owens says, but they can increase home resale value. “It’s more of a solid investment than people think,” he adds.

Heidi Raschke is a longtime journalist and editor who previously was the Executive Editor of Mpls-St. Paul Magazine and Living and Learning Editor at Next Avenue. Currently, she runs her own content strategy and development consultancy. Read More
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