Choosing safe rugs in skilled nursing facilities

Michael Chotiner
Michael Chotiner

Selecting the right flooring materials for skilled nursing facilities requires balancing comfort, health and safety concerns against ease of maintenance and affordability. Many professional design and public interest groups have weighed in on the subject, including the American Institute of Architects, American Society of Interior Decorators, National Center for Healthy Housing (NCHH) and the publication Building Design + Construction. While these design guidelines for senior care facilities contain more than a few contradictions, everyone agrees that the current trend and best course of action is to create an environment that is as homelike as possible.

To that end, designers say that rugs and carpets offer some advantages over hard surface materials such as tile, stone, vinyl and hardwood. Fabric floorcoverings not only contribute to a softer, less institutional ambience, they offer better traction underfoot and a degree of cushioning in the event of a fall—both especially important for seniors. Experts also point out that carpets and rugs improve the acoustical properties in gathering spaces by dampening ambient noise levels, which helps hearing-impaired individuals follow conversations in busy areas. Varying rug colors — that is, using rugs to establish specific color associations with particular areasv — can help seniors who suffer from memory loss or low vision with way finding.

Design policy experts also point out some liabilities of carpets, the most compelling being their potential effect on indoor air quality. Most carpets sold are made from synthetic fibers and backing materials, some of which are known to emit volatile organic compounds. They can have harmful effects, especially for those with respiratory ailments. Wall-to-wall carpeting is often installed with VOC-laden adhesive.

Of course, the release of VOCs dissipates with time, reducing potentially harmful effects, but, experts acknowledge, carpeting is not as easy to keep clean as hard surfaces. Fabrics tend to collect dust and other allergens, and can't be scrubbed or dried easily. Caregivers also advise against area rugs that are too thick and present trip hazards.

Here are a few helpful guidelines for selecting rugs and carpets that work for long-term care providers:

  • Choose rugs made from low-VOC nylon or natural fibers such as wool, organic cotton, sisal or coir.

  • Look for nontoxic backing and underlay pads made from natural materials, such as wool or camel hair, that are sewn, not glued, to a jute backing.

  • Area rugs are often a better choice than wall-to-wall carpeting, because they don't require adhesive for installation and are easier to remove for cleaning and drying.

  • Area rugs should have a nonslip backing made from natural, not synthetic, latex.

  • Select carpets and rugs with low pile. Deep pile and soft, thick carpet backing can have an unbalancing effect underfoot, especially in transition from hard-surface flooring.

  • Avoid rugs with bold geometric designs or highly contrasting colors, which may be visually disorienting to those with compromised depth perception.

  • Maintain carpets and rugs by vacuuming frequently with HEPA filter-equipped vacuums to extract any dust and allergens and prevent them from recirculating.

Emphasize to your design team that if they choose wisely, they can create a beautiful, safe and homelike environment for residents and make informed flooring choices that eliminate potential risks.

Michael Chotiner has many years of experience as a general contractor, and writes about his floor covering expertise for The Home Depot. You can research the various area rugs that Michael mentions here on Home Depot's website  

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