NJIT environmental psychologist offers tips on how elderly can stay home

Environmental psychologist Richard Olsen, PhD, and research architect Lynn Hutchings are people on a mission. The researchers, based in the architecture school at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), would like to see older people and people with dementia live better, safer and more comfortable lives staying in their homes.

"Unfortunately, the home environment is not well suited for many people to remain in as they age," said Olsen. "Safety problems abound, especially when it comes to exterior maintenance." However, Olsen and Hutchings believe that vigilant attention to detail and common sense can keep many a loved one in their familiar surroundings.

The pair is in the vanguard of a growing national movement to enable the aging population and individuals with disabilities to remain at home. The researchers recently co-authored A Home for Life, NJIT Press, 2005. The text is a soft cover, easy-to-read and follow, 78-page guide for creating, safe, comfortable homes. A grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service supported their work.

"Research shows that living at home for many people is better than being sent to an institution," said Olsen. Fifteen states, to date, have arrangements so that Medicare money can pay for daily visits from home health aides to people in their homes. Similar legislation is now pending in New Jersey as well as a pilot program for Ocean County.

"The thing to keep in mind when assessing a home is to remain flexible and honest when assessing the capabilities of the individual," said Olsen. "Not everything works for everyone. There is no silver bullet. What we suggest are some ideas to try that we have seen often work for some people."

"We also remind everyone to assess the situation every few months to insure that the living conditions remain viable," Hutchings added. "You will need to be doing different things at different stages of the person's life. But with a certain amount of common sense and attention to detail, loved ones can remain in their homes."

The book focuses on many good tips for home safety, but the ones for exterior maintenance pinpoint among some of the most potentially dangerous and overlooked spots. "In many homes, the most trouble occurs before anyone even reaches the front door," said Hutchings. "Unfortunately, we get so used to seeing everyday landscapes, these hazards, don't pop out at us."

What to do?

"The remedy begins with a pad and pencil and 10 minute safety walk from the street, up the driveway to the front door," Olsen said. "Walkways, driveways and front, side and rear yards all need to be accessible, easy to walk on and free of tripping hazards." Olsen suggests using the following checklist to ensure safe and comfortable surroundings.

Driveways and Sidewalks

  • Driveways must have a minimum width of 13 feet to accommodate a van and provide a walking aisle on both sides. If the van has a side lift for a wheelchair, then a minimum of 19 feet is necessary.
  • Level driveway sections where people enter and exit vehicles.
  • Uneven walkways must be repaired or repaved
  • Steep walkways need regarding and that is impossible, install cylindrical railings.
  • Trim or remove encroaching shrubbery and grass on sidewalks
  • If possible get rid of steps and make a slope instead. If impossible, install railings on both sides.
  • Transitions between walking surfaces should be smooth and seamless

Railings and Steps

  • All steps need a railing. Even single steps
  • Lower riser height when possible from the standard 8 inches to 6-7 inches.
  • Rectangular steps are safe; curved and semi-circle steps are dangerous.
  • Steps need smooth, even treads.
  • Low-rise steps may need to be ramped.
  • All steps need double railings
  • Railings should be cylindrical. They are easier to grip.
  • On wide steps, railings should be installed close to the most direct path to the door so they are within easy reach
  • Whenever possible, create an on-grade entry.

Door and Doorway Design

  • Doors and stairs need good lighting.
  • Trim shrubbery from steps and doors.
  • Install a vertical grab bar at the side of the door for frail people who need to pull themselves up a high doorstep.
  • Replace the high door thresholds with flat ones or install a special threshold ramp.
  • Plane doors difficult to open.
  • Widen doors to 36 inches a wheelchair or other mobility assist is needed.
  • Consider a press plate or remote controlled automatic door opener.
  • Install a closer on storm doors that works slowly.
  • Hinges for storm and main doors should be on the same side.
  • Install lever door handles.
  • Have peepholes at the proper height so short people and people in wheelchairs can see who is at the door.
  • Install easy-to-use locks, perhaps even a key card lock.
  • Install track covers or threshold ramps on both sides of a sliding door.
  • Remove door mats that are worn or slippery. Install one with anti-skid backing.

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To order copies of the book, contact the Center for Architecture and Building Science Research at 973-596-8439 to request an order form.

New Jersey Institute of Technology, the state's public technological research university, enrolls more than 8,100 students in bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in 100 degree programs offered by six colleges: Newark College of Engineering, New Jersey School of Architecture, College of Science and Liberal Arts, School of Management, Albert Dorman Honors College and College of Computing Sciences. NJIT is renowned for expertise in architecture, applied mathematics, wireless communications and networking, solar physics, advanced engineered particulate materials, nanotechnology, neural engineering and eLearning. In 2006, Princeton Review named NJIT among the nation's top 25 campuses for technology recognizing the university's tradition of research and learning at the edge in knowledge.


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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