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Caregiving Forum What home renovations have you found most helpful as you and your loved ones age in place?

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Home Repair and Universal Design

When most people purchase a home, they don't think about how it will suit them as they age. A decline in physical ability can make daily routines difficult. Climbing stairs, bathing, preparing meals, and making home repairs become serious challenges. As we age, many of us don't realize or don't want to admit that our homes don't meet all our needs. As a result, we may try to change or adapt our routines to avoid obstacles. But you don't have to live like this. A solution called Universal Design recognizes and respects the wide range of human abilities.

Homes with Universal Design (UD) features are usable and safe for people of all ages. The UD concept eliminates the need for specialized, expensive equipment. Universal Design is about ability, not disability. Features such as wide doorways and lever handles instead of doorknobs offer solutions that meet the needs of the aging person.

A UD home is not only pleasing to the eye but comfortable and convenient. It helps you stay in control and in your own home as long as possible. However, many people haven't seen a UD home, so they don't know what to imagine. As a result, builders repeat decades-old design mistakes. If you don't live in a UD home, it's important to evaluate your current home and plan changes that foster independence, comfort, and safety.

  • Many people live in old, even dangerous structures that contribute to falls and injuries.
  • The National Centers for Disease Control (CDC) suggests that one-third of home accidents could be prevented by modification and repair.
  • Home modification bolsters the chances that older people will retain independence injury-free, stay in their homes, and remain active much longer in their own communities.
Universal design is about ability, not disability.

Many UD improvements are inexpensive and easy to implement. Consider doing some of them yourself, or ask for help from a friend. Here are some basic examples:

  • Grab bars in the shower, by the toilet, and by the tub
  • Rubber strips in the bathtub/shower to prevent slipping
  • Hand-held flexible showerhead
  • Adjustable shower seat
  • Telephone in the bathroom that can be reached from the floor
  • Lever door handles and faucets that operate easily with a push
  • Night-lights
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Bigger changes may require a contractor, so be sure to do your homework:

  • List the renovations you want before talking to a contractor.
  • Get references from family and friends. Were they happy not just with a contractor's work, but also the price and how long the job took? Ask local hardware or home stores for recommendations of contractors they respect.
  • Research possible complaints. The Better Business Bureau and Consumer Protection Office are helpful places to find out about complaints that have been filed against a contractor.
  • Compare contractors against each other. Find out if they each do the type of work you want, and how long have they been in business. Ask for proof that they are licensed, bonded, and covered by workers' compensation and liability insurance. Ask for bank and/or supplier references to make sure they are financially stable.
  • Get three estimates. Meet face-to-face with at least three contractors. Make sure there is a clear understanding of the work to be done. Get written estimates that detail materials, labor, start and end dates, and total cost.
  • Take your time. The lowest bid may not always be the best one. Go over the estimates carefully and ask for explanations of anything that isn't clear. Have someone else look over the contract before signing—any genuine deal will still be there the next day.
  • Put it in writing. A well-written, clear, and detailed contract is very important. Make sure that everything you agreed on is in writing. Don't approve any plans unless you understand them. Never sign a contract with any blanks. Request a copy of everything you sign. Make sure the contract states who is responsible for obtaining building permits.
  • Be cautious but feel comfortable. You should feel comfortable with the contractor who will work in your home. A federal law allows you to cancel any home repair contracts by giving written notice to the contractor, usually within three business days.
  • Understand the financing. Be careful if the contractor offers to arrange the financing—you may get a better loan from your bank or credit union. Understand all the terms and how much interest you'll pay. Any financial agreement must comply with the federal Truth-in-Lending Act. This law requires that the lender gives an accurate account of credit and cancellation terms.
  • Don't sign the completion certificate until after a final inspection. Make your final payment only after you and the necessary local building authorities have inspected the work and judged it to be complete in the manner you agreed on. Get a written statement that the contractor has paid all of the subcontractors before you make your final payment.

These simple ideas, from the smallest doorknob change to the largest remodeling job, will all help older people maintain an important aspect of a happy life—independence in their own homes.

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© 2003, 2004, 2007 AARP. Reprinting by permission only.

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