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The Parent Trap: Boomers Help Mom and Dad Avoid a Home's Potential Pitfalls

Baby Boomers may dream of owning a second home as they head into their retirement years. But instead of caring for a vacation house, adult children often find themselves helping an aging mom and dad avoid the safety pitfalls of the family home. There's no doubt where seniors want to be as they age. The majority of seniors polled in recent industry surveys – typically 90 percent – say they want to stay at home. But in a 2007 AARP independent living study, two-thirds of Boomer women surveyed said they are concerned about their parents' ability to live independently as they get older, with 43 percent being very concerned and 26 percent somewhat concerned. 1

It's a legitimate fear. "Many seniors and their families don't think about the fact that homes must adapt to the changing needs of seniors as they age until an accident happens," said Reed Kovalan owner of the Home Instead Senior Care office Greater Pittsburgh. "There are many potential pitfalls that we've seen during the home safety reviews that our company conducts before starting service in a client's home. Our reviews cover 50 different items throughout a home including the entrance, living areas, kitchen, bedroom, bathroom and stairways. Important safety areas to highlight in a senior's home run the gamut from accessibility to lighting to trip and fall hazards. A lack of attention to those details can jeopardize an older adult's ability to remain at home," Kovalan said.

Many home safety improvements are simple and inexpensive, experts say. Convincing seniors, on the other hand, is another story. Danise Levine, assistant director of the IDEA Center at the SUNY (State University of New York) Buffalo School of Architecture, said that denial often comes into play with seniors.

"We see a lot of seniors who don't want to admit they're getting older so they don't want to make changes in their homes," Levine said. "Secondly, consumer education is an issue. If older adults do need help they often don't know where to go or how much things cost."

Those issues can result in seniors' adapting behavior to their environment, creating a potentially dangerous situation, said Levine, whose IDEA Center is dedicated to improving the design of environments and products by making them more usable. "If a senior has problems getting off the toilet, he could develop a several-step process of using a window sill, shower curtain and towel bar to get up." However, a window sill and towel bar will eventually pull away and break, and a shower curtain will tear under the strain, creating the potential for an accident.

Unfortunately, many home makeover changes are responsive rather than proactive, noted Peter Bell, president of the National Aging in Place Council, a Washington-based advocacy group dedicated to helping seniors remain at home. "Too often changes aren't made until someone has had a stroke or other type of condition that begins to impair their mobility," Bell said. "It's a shame, too, because that's a difficult time to be making a renovation." Bell said that it's important for a senior-care professional to conduct a home review to identify various safety pitfalls from poor lighting to the need for adaptive devices in a home. While many fixes are simple and inexpensive, others might involve a remodeling project to help a senior remain at home.

"That first, important step is to make an objective review of what needs to be done to keep them at home," Kovalan said. "It's one of the most important services that Home Instead Senior Care provides."

1. Are Americans Talking with Their Parents About Independent Living: A 2007 Study Among Boomer Women; http://assets.aarp.org/rgcenter/il/boomer_women.pdf

For more information or to obtain a free home safety checklist, contact the local Home Instead Senior Care Office at (412) 731-0733.

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