Make your home wheelchair accessible

Make living at home easier for seniors

By Allan Britnell


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Face it, we're not getting any younger. In fact, there are about four million Canadians aged 65 or older. In another 20 years, that number is projected to be almost double. Along with the wisdom of experience and the free time of retirement that a lifetime of working bestows, there are some unwanted side effects: hearing and eyesight fade, joints ache and everyday tasks we once took for granted become painful and potentially dangerous. But although we're aging, we're also living longer and healthier lives. Here we've compiled a collection of devices and modifications you can make to three key areas of the home-the main entrance, bathroom and kitchen-so that you or your loved ones can enjoy the golden years in the comfort of your own home.

Ramp-Up the Entrance

The first obstacle to home self-sufficiency is the ability to get into and out of the house. Depending on the needs of the occupant, entranceway modifications can be as simple as improved lighting or as complex as installing a ramp or elevator for wheelchair access.

The ramp shown here (1) is on a 1:12 slope. All landings (2) should be at least 5' x 5' to allow a complete turning radius for those in a wheelchair or using a walker. The ramp surface is covered in anti-slip strips and includes secure railings installed at elbow height on either side.

Stairs should have railings on both sides. Contrasting stripes of paint or anti-slip material at the front of each stair tread helps them stand out.

While their value as burglary deterrents is debatable, timer or motion-sensor lights (3) are a relatively inexpensive way to help light up an entrance, and they're only on when you need them.

Lever handles (4) and keyless electronic locks make it easier for arthritic hands to open the door. For a deluxe touch, you can install an electric door opener ($2,000).

Modular ramp kits (5) start at about $90. They join together like Lego and can be built up to allow someone in a wheelchair to cross thresholds or a single stair. Have a look at the dimensions of your doorway: in some cases, the opening may need to be widened to accommodate someone who uses a wheelchair or a walker.

Safe Bathroom Basics

The bathroom, with its combination of electric appliances, wet surfaces and potentially scalding hot water, is the most common area for household injuries.

Rid yourself of trip and fall hazards by removing loose bath mats. Tile and laminate flooring is slippery when wet, so instead install wall-to-wall carpet (1) or anti-slip sheet flooring as a safer option.

Grab bars (2), starting at about $40, are one of the handiest devices you can add to the home. If the bathroom decor is due for an update, consider lining the walls with 3/4" plywood. After covering it with wallboard, the entire wall will be supportive enough to allow you to install grab bars wherever you need them.

For more versatility, other styles of grab bars ($200 and up) swing into place from the wall or ceiling, or are height-adjustable to accommodate the needs of more than one user.

Sitting down on a standard throne can be a royal pain. You can make it easier to sit down and rise from the toilet (3) by raising the seat off the ground. Seats with thicker legs that give a three-inch boost can be added to any toilet. You can even replace the commode with a taller base that adds another two to three inches of rise ($500).

This accessible sink (4) has clearance space below it for a wheelchair. The deep basin tilts down for easy access and long levers replace standard taps, easier to use if you're not at full strength. The mirror above it (5) also tilts down so you can see yourself when seated.

There are a number of options available for making bathing a safer experience. At the very least, you should have an anti-slip mat on the shower or tub floor. As occupational therapist Catherine Brackley points out, “If you slip in the tub and hit your head, that may be the end of it.” Here (6) we show a shower stall retrofitted into a space that once housed a bathtub. It includes a modular ramp (7).

The safest and most comfortable way to bathe is to have a seat in the tub (8). Again, there are a number of options (from $50 to $500). Portable vinyl and stainless steel chairs (often used for short-term needs by people recovering from an injury) can be moved in and out as needed. Other models are fixed to the wall but tilt up and out of the way when not in use.

Make showering easier when you're seated: install a handheld shower head (9) with an adjustable height mount.

To reduce the risk of injury from hot water, you can install anti-scald mechanisms or turn down the temperature on the water heater (49°C is the maximum recommended). In homes in which the elderly are living with the younger set, a diverting valve can switch water flow between the side-mounted faucet and a standard shower head.

A Kitchen Within Reach

Cooking can be a daunting task when fragile plates and cups seem just out of reach, reserve pantry goods are in the back of cupboards or downstairs in the basement, and you're always worrying that you've left cooking appliances on.

Making the senior chef feel more comfortable in the kitchen may require a major remodelling, but it should make the difference between self-sufficiency and needing extra help.

Start by considering the kitchen lighting. If you don't already have them, install under-cabinet lights (1) or focused task lighting. You don't have to be a senior to appreciate being able to see the food you're preparing. If the new lighting requires electrical work, you should also consider relocating electrical outlets and light switches at the same time, moving them to where they're easier to reach (2).

Choose contrasting colours, such a white enamelled sink basin set into a dark countertop, to help those with poor vision distinguish between the two, even from a distance.

To make accessing shelves easier, kitchen cabinets (3) can be mounted on brackets that raise and lower them ($2,000 to $3,000) or tilt them out for wheelchair access. These units have built-in sensors to stop them if people or objects get in the way. While they can support up to 200 kg (441 lbs.), rearrange the cupboards so the heaviest and most-used items are in the lower cabinets. Glass doors make it easy to see what's where, and large D-shaped handles (4) are easy to grab.

As in the bathroom, knee space below the sink (5) is essential for wheelchair users, and long-levered handles (6) on the sink make the taps easy to use. Like the cabinets, this counter ($2,500 to $3,500) is motorized to raise and lower to a convenient height for the person who's using it (7). One nice feature is the electrical outlet at the front of the counter. A pullout shelf (8) offers a handy workspace while seated.

Countertop appliances that shut off automatically (9) can reduce the risk of accidents if forgetfulness is an issue. Ovens can also be modified to turn off after a set period of time.

Look for appliance models that are elder-friendly, such as side-by-side refrigerator/freezers (10) and ovens with controls at the front (11), so there's no need to reach over hot elements to adjust the heat.

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