Know Your Stuff: Making existing homes senior- and mobility-friendly

This article first appeared in City & Country, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on December 14, 2020 - December 20, 2020.
Know Your Stuff: Making existing homes senior- and mobility-friendly
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Hazel slipped in her bathroom after a shower recently. She escaped with just a bruised hip, scraped elbow and a small bump on her head.

“After I got over the shock of the fall, I was thankful that I am 26 and not 86 because people that age would have sustained worse injuries than mine. And then, I started to think about all the possible dangers around the house that may be insignificant to me but could cause major problems for my ageing parents,” she says.

It is important for people who are living with ageing parents to consider senior-friendly homes, says PI Architect principal Datuk Tan Pei Ing. “For existing homeowners, it is quite easy to make some changes to your home to accommodate seniors and people who are not mobile.”

Veritas Architects Australia director Anton Alers says that to transform an existing house, it is worth looking at the key design features of accessible housing and how the various elements can be incorporated into the home.

Tips to consider

Steps and changes in level are a problem, especially for wheelchair users or carers who need to assist them. “From the car porch or garage into the residence, it is possible to install ramps. But these need to be sufficiently wide and not too steep or long, and have a non-slip surface,” says Alers.

Inside the house, the floor surface and finishes are something to be looked at as seniors have poorer balance than young people. It is good to avoid slippery floors such as marble, Tan advises.

Loose rugs on polished floors are a tripping hazard. Alers recommends placing friction-webbing mats under rugs to prevent them from slipping.

Floor finishes in wet areas are a slipping hazard if they have insufficient grip when wet. “Particular attention is required when selecting tiles or other finishes, including in the kitchen,” he says.

Slipping accidents also happen often in toilets and bathrooms because of wet floors. “Put an additional chair or bench in the shower area. If you have a bathtub, put a strip and mat inside,” advises Tan.

Handrails or grab bars in showers and baths are recommended and additional handrails in toilets are necessary to help the elderly person get up from the toilet seat, says Alers.

In the bedroom, soft furnishings like carpets can provide a softer landing if a senior falls, says Tan. “Consider changing your light switches to bigger ones as these would be easier for seniors to use. Because their eyesight is not as good anymore, lighting around the house needs to be bright enough for them to move around safely.”

Thresholds are another problem, says Alers. “Steps that are effective in keeping out rain and dust can be a tripping hazard. Prefabricated short transition ramps made of rubber are an option in these instances and are easily laid in place.”

Seniors or those who are mobility-challenged may have reduced hand strength. “Changing the door handles to the lever instead of the knob type will make it easier for them to use,” says Tan.

It is the same for tap sets, says Alers. “Change to cross-pattern or quarter-turn tap sets to avoid problems presented by conventional tap sets that may need considerable force to operate.”

Gardens are an important extension of the living space and should be accessible to all, especially seniors, who can use them for exercise and to get some sunshine, he says.

Garden paths with stepping stones and uneven or gravel surfaces are tripping hazards and may be impassable to wheelchair users or those using a walking frame. Slippery surfaces create a considerable fall risk.

However, consider the garden and landscaping elements as an opportunity for seniors to enjoy some outdoor recreation. “Elevated planter beds enable seniors and wheelchair users to create flower beds, grow herbs or tend to vegetable plots as a hobby or therapeutic activity,” says Alers.

These recommendations are not hard to achieve, the architects point out.

Tan says it is not expensive to put in basic requirements such as grab bars and change door handles. “But of course, if you have a home with slippery, shiny marble flooring and you want to change it, then it is a costly affair.”

Alers concurs. “If the budget is tight, consider how to create a suitable living space with bathroom facilities on the ground floor [of a landed property].”

Other tips include elderly-friendly furniture, such as tables and chairs that are stable and lounge sofas that are easy to get up from. Also, avoid having sharp edges on furniture and built-in bench tops and cabinets.

A real-life example

KW Associate Planners Sdn Bhd managing director Khairiah Talha has lived in a bungalow with her family since 2008. In 2013, she renovated her house to accommodate a room and facilities for her elderly mother, a widow.

She converted the then main lounge/living room and adjacent guest bedroom into a bedroom/living room, a prayer room and a bathroom for the senior.

Dubbed the granny unit by Khairiah, the senior-friendly area has a ramp from the car porch through to the extra-large main doors.

“The extra-large main doors are to accommodate stretchers as well as a wheelchair. The car porch has an extra-high ceiling to accommodate an ambulance parked right at the front of the door,” she explains.

The floor of the room to the bathroom and prayer room is seamless. In the bathroom, there is a folding seat in the shower stall and the toilet has a folding safety grab bar.

She also put in ramps from the house to the garden so that her mother or any other senior can enjoy the space.

As this was a large-scale renovation, the cost (structure only) came up to about RM200,000, says Khairiah. “But it was beneficial and timely as my elderly father-in-law became very sick soon after and stayed at the granny unit for four months to recuperate. And now, after so many years, my mother has finally agreed to move in with me. The seamless floor levels and the toilet and shower fittings make it very easy for her as her knees are already weak and she finds walking difficult.”

She adds that one day, if she and her husband live to an old age, they will move down to the unit from the master bedroom. If that happens, they will benefit from the renovation as well.

When asked whether it is important for a young homeowner to consider senior and mobility-friendly homes, Khairiah says it is. “Anyone, anytime, at any age can become a disabled person through sickness or accidents. Hence, looking for designs that cater for the needs of the senior or disabled person is a smart, visionary and proactive move that indicates a person is prepared for any eventuality.”

Looking for such designs early on when buying or designing a house would mean savings in the cost of renovations later on in life, she adds.