Seniors (classified as age 65 and older) are choosing to live in their homes for as long as possible. A 2019 Harvard report found that the age group’s desire to live at home — even if alone — has grown 15% from 2012 to 2017.
This desire, combined with the ripple effects of COVID-19, is causing more seniors and their families to hold off the transition and settle at home. But designing a home where an aging loved one can feel safe and comfortable takes planning and money. In some cases, home insurance or government programs could help fund the improvements.
The improvements should take both current and future needs into consideration. Accessibility, creating a space for potential live-in care and modifications with safety in mind should all be priorities.
Nursing homes, other long-term care facilities hit hard by COVID-19
According to an article from The New York Times, residents and supporting staff of long-term care facilities account for 40% of the U.S. deaths from COVID-19. There are likely reasons for such a high toll. Most nursing homes require close proximity to the elderly, and to date, many facilities across the country lack proper health protocols as well as enough staff to tend residents carefully. And some aging adults may not have any other option than to enter —or remain— in a nursing home.
“Everyone entering the community goes through our safety screening process, and visitors have been limited to those deemed essential, following state and local guidelines,” explains Kelley Skarp, SVP of Sales and Marketing for The Arbor Company, an independent living company with over 40 assisted living communities in 11 states. Even with updated measures in place, nursing homes or other types of assisted facilities may no longer be a safe and viable option right now.
Preparing the home to age in place
There are a few important elements necessary before you create a home a senior can feel safe and protected in.
Health and safety first
Similar to the safety measures a nursing facility should take, a senior’s home should reduce the number of visitors during the pandemic. Managing who is coming and going is easier from a home location than a facility. If skilled nurses or caretakers must come to visit the senior, there are steps you can take to ensure the interactions are safe for both parties.
- Create a landing zone at home. Visitors can leave their items at the entrance and use sanitizer before entering the home. Removing their shoes at the door and wearing slippers could also be helpful.
- Designate a second home for the elder. If renovation work will be going on while your senior is home, it may be better to move your loved one until the work is completed.
- Have a safety protocol. If temporary relocation is too stressful, creating safety protocols with contractors working in the home is essential.
Before you choose a contractor, ask what type of safety measures they take on-site and how they ensure they’re carried out.
Review home insurance policy
Before you get started on any renovations, review the senior’s home insurance policy and coverages. The policy should cover home renovations and liability should a contractor get injured while working at home.
Although contractors must provide their own insurance, it’s always a good idea to confirm your homeowners insurance liability coverage protects the senior against any claims from caregivers, builders, skilled nurses and others. You may also need to notify the insurance company of improvements that could affect your home’s value, and even score you a discount on your homeowners insurance.
Home renovations to consider
Perform a walkthrough of the home to identify what improvements may need to be made to accommodate your loved one’s current and future needs. Some renovations may include:
- Widen doorways
- Install lever-style doorknobs
- Put grab bars in bathrooms
- Install a walk-in bathtub or shower
- Replace flooring with slip-resistant material
- Add a wheelchair ramp
- Install a stairlift or elevator
- Improve lighting
Theresa Clement is a home designer and a Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist (CAPs). Besides the improvements listed, Clement suggests raising electrical outlets “so there is no need to bend over to plug and unplug items.” She also recommends adding strip lighting to stairs and halls to illuminate darker areas.
Costs of renovations for aging in place
Many improvements, such as adding a wheelchair ramp or improving lighting, are simple and affordable enough to execute over a weekend. Others are more involved and costly. Here’s a rough idea:
- Install lever-style doorknobs: Replacing doorknobs could be a simple DIY project. Lever-style door knobs can be purchased at a local home improvement store for as little as $25 each and installed yourself.
- Install walk-in bathtub or shower and adding grab bars to a bathroom: Lauren McKinney of Judd Builders in North Carolina regularly works on home improvements for seniors. According to McKinney, “Grab bars can cost $200 to $300 for parts and labor installation.” It’s harder to price a shower remodel. Depending on whether you’re interested in adding a shower insert or using tile, the cost could be at least $5,000.
- Replace flooring with slip-resistant material: Home Advisor estimates slip-resistant flooring such as rubber tiles at $4 to $12 per foot installed. The average project price costs between $800 and $2,300.
- Install a stairlift or elevator: Elevators can be costly to install. Home Advisor prices a traditional elevator between $35,000 to $60,000 for a two-story home. A stairlift is more affordable at $2,800 to $5,000 for a simple installation.
Financial assistance for home modifications
Home improvement costs that focus on safety for your senior can add up. If you’d like to make upgrades but you fall short on funds, consider the following options:
- Low-interest loans: Interest rates are at historical lows. There’s no better time to borrow.
- Home improvement grants: The Section 504 Home Repair Program provides seniors with grants of up to $7,500 to upgrade or modernize a home.
- Equipment loans: You may be able to receive a loan directly from a manufacturer.
- Medicare Advantage: Equipment prescribed by your doctor, such as patient lifts or hospital beds may be covered by Medicare.
- Medicaid HCBS Waivers and Home Modifications: Medicaid may cover the cost of select home improvements and modifications, including adaptive lighting and bathroom safety upgrades.
- Veterans Programs for Home Modifications: The VA offers grants to disabled veterans interested in renovating their homes. Even if the disability is less severe, a prescription from a doctor may be acceptable for grant eligibility.
- Non-Medicaid Government Assistance for Home Modification: Some programs worth looking into include Rural Repair and Rehabilitation Grants through the USDA and home improvement loans from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. States may also offer their own grants and loan programs for home modifications.
- Nonprofit and Foundation Assistance for Home Modifications: Organizations such as Rebuilding Together provide funding and volunteers to seniors in need of health and safety-related repairs and improvements around the house.
How technology can help
COVID-19 has accelerated the introduction of technology for seniors. Skarp says the Arbor Company residences have expanded on the use of technology to bridge the distance between seniors and their loved ones. This connection to others is powerful because the opportunity to connect and engage is just as necessary for seniors to thrive.”
How can you make use of technology to keep an aging loved one safe and connected? Consider the following ideas:
Smart home technology
Smart thermostats, smart door locks, smart home security systems and automated light switches are some of the more helpful devices for seniors. Caregivers can see how the senior is doing by checking in through an app or help the older adult adjust a home’s temperature or control door locks remotely.
Alexa or Google Home
Voice-controlled apps and devices may be easier for an older adult to manage, especially if they’re having trouble with coordination or dexterity. Using voice commands to call for help can make all the difference in case of an emergency.
Being able to visit with a nurse or doctor remotely can reduce an aging loved one’s chances of COVID-19. Depending on the senior’s mobility, it may also be more convenient. Providing a senior with a tablet for telemedicine appointments and video chats is an essential tool to make remote medical consultations possible.
As Skarp mentioned, creating a space for seniors to safely connect with friends and loved ones is essential during this period of isolation. Teaching an older adult how to use basic web chat technology such as Skype, FaceTime or Zoom to stay in touch with loved ones keeps them from feeling lonely and disconnected from their support system.
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