Some surveys suggest up to 85 per cent of Canadians intend to live at home for as long as possible. But more than one in three haven’t seriously considered measures to make life at home easier and safer. Thinking ahead is essential, says Heather Mahon, who owns and operates Heather’s Home Healthcare, a medical equipment and supplies store that promotes independent living. “Today we can be really, really healthy and tomorrow that can change.” The earlier Canadians start planning, the more prepared they’ll be to handle changes in their health and mobility, Service Canada advises. That planning should include current and future costs of staying at home, proximity to friends and family, transportation, and assessing safety risks at home. The agency has a wealth of information about aging in place.
Homeowners can make simple improvements themselves, such as installing grab bars in the shower, bath area and around the toilet, says Mahon. “If you’re going to replace furniture, my suggestion is to go to a lift chair.” Push-button controls on an electrically-powered recliner are easier to use than manually-operated handles that require strength and dexterity.
John Ritchie of Ritchie Renovations suggests making the home as maintenance-free as possible. He says windows and doors that need paint every year or every other year should be replaced, if homeowners have room in their budget. Vinyl or fibreglass windows need little maintenance. Some manufacturers offer windows that clean themselves with glass coatings that react with sunlight to break down dirt and grime that’s washed away by rain. “The more maintenance-free they can make their house, the better off they are,” Ritchie says. Anyone heating a home with only wood should get a furnace, Ritchie recommends. “Get a source of heat other than wood because it’s a lot of work.” When it comes to interior renovations, an occupational therapist can provide detailed advice tailored to individual needs.
For Mahon, it’s bathrooms that require the most attention. “Your biggest bugaboo is the bathroom,” she warns. With many hard surfaces and edges that get slippery when wet, bathrooms can be a painful place for a fall. Grab bars and shower seats are key to safety. An unobstructed area, at least five feet in diameter, is needed for manoeuvring a wheelchair or walker in the bathroom. Motorized wheelchairs or scooters need more room. “Think about access,” Mahon advises. “If I have to go in with a walker am I able to turn around?” Curbless showers are terrific, she says. Although some people like to soak in a tub, as they age they’re susceptible to what Mahon calls “beached whale syndrome.”
“One day you’re going to get caught in that tub and you’re not going to be able to get out because either your arms aren’t strong enough or you can’t get yourself turned around.” When replacing a tub, she recommends a low-profile tub, no higher than 21 inches. “If you’re doing flooring, put in a heated floor and get rid of scatter mats, they’re a tripping hazard. As you age, you don’t want those in there,” she says. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation provides detailed recommendations for renovations or new construction to make nearly every room of the house safe, accessible and comfortable. It offers suggestions for kitchens, appliances, living rooms, exterior decks, gardens and landscaping. Revenue Canada allows homeowners age 65 or older and those with disabilities to claim up to $10,000 for renovation expenses that make their homes accessible and safer. In addition to accessibility, people who want to grow old at home should consider day-to-day maintenance, such as snow removal and year-to-year maintenance, says Leah Kane, a sales person with RE/MAX North Country Realty Inc. “Will the furnace need to be replaced in the next little while? Those big ticket items need to be done. Budget for those big ticket items,” she urges.
Some people are selling their family homes in large urban areas, where homes fetch high prices, and are moving to smaller communities where housing is less expensive. “That is a big chunk of our business,” says Kane. “We see people migrating north because this is the lifestyle they’ve been envisioning for a long time. When they come up here, it’s much more affordable.” One-floor living, with comfortable living arrangements, master bedroom and ground-floor laundry, is ideal, she says. “If people are transitioning from a large home into a smaller home, the benefits to doing that is their taxes will be lower. Their heating costs will be lower,” Kane says. “If you need to replace a roof over a 1,000 sq. ft. home versus a 1,700 sq. ft. foot home with a second storey, it’s going to be less expensive. A smaller bungalow is going to be much more affordable.” Financially, the longer people can live in their own homes, the better, she says.