A Few Simple Fix-ups To Houses Can Keep Older Folks At Home

HOME WORK

November 23, 1991|By Karol V. Menzie and Randy Johnson

Older houses in the city often have an intrinsic value that goes beyond the worth of the structure and the land.

They often have older owners/inhabitants. These original or longtime residents are what give any neighborhood its character, its stability and its viability.

In return, the community gives them familiar surroundings close to shopping, public transportation and old friends.

Older residents, in fact, are a resource no city can afford to lose.

Unfortunately, as they grow older, some people find their houses growing less user-friendly. It's a mistake to think that when people have difficulties in the house they are no longer suited to independent living. In fact, it's the house that's at fault: It's just not structured for their needs.

Construction of senior housing is one solution, but it's hardly the only one, says Jo Fisher, of Baltimore's South East Senior Housing Initiative.

When a number of organizations in the South East area got together to figure out "what they could do to make it easier for older people to stay down here," as she puts it, they heard "over and over again that people don't necessarily want to move to something new, they want to stay in their own homes."

SESHI set out to discover "the housing preferences and needs of older residents and how they can be accommodated using available resources -- the traditional row house of South East, surplus buildings, and parcels of vacant land -- within the context of dwindling government funding," the group's report says.

They developed a set of questions and posed them to

C "representative group" of older residents at focus groups. Some people who couldn't travel to the focus groups were interviewed at home.

They found that in many cases, access to information was the problem: People didn't know about existing programs or didn't know how to go about acquiring services, including finding contractors to make changes in the house.

They also found that a number of relatively simple and inexpensive changes could make a world of difference in improving livability for seniors. Here are a few of the most basic:

*D-shaped handles on all cabinets and lever handles on doors and plumbing fixtures. They don't require grasping or twisting.

*Long-lasting light bulbs don't need to be replaced often. That means less climbing, grasping and twisting.

*Sensible arrangement of furniture. That means keeping walk spaces clear of furniture -- "Coffee tables are lethal weapons," Ms. Fisher says -- and rugs that slide.

*Color and contrast are important. Contrasting colors make it easier to differentiate surfaces -- between rugs and furniture, for instance. Ms. Fisher recommends contrast strips on the edges of stairs. Avoiding glare and reducing shadows also make it easier for people to find their way around.

*Grab bars. They're especially helpful in bathrooms where surfaces may be slick, but they're easy to install and can aid progress along a hallway or around a sharp corner.

*Auxiliary electric baseboard heaters. They're not difficult to install and are relatively inexpensive and can make a single room much warmer. They're also more economical than heating the whole house.

Some of these changes require only handyman-type skills, Ms. Fisher pointed out, and -- a hint for the holidays coming up -- are something truly useful children can do for their parents.

Next: SESHI's "Our Idea House."

Mr. Johnson is construction manager for Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is Home Editor of The Sun.

If you have questions, comments, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

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