How to do it... Designing for mobility

1. Where you install mobility and assistive equipment is as important as the devices themselves. This becomes quite evident in memory care populations and among residents who fear falling from use of device that failed in the past or from a newly installed device.

“A handrail will be in the direct line of sight for those in wheelchairs, so it becomes a central part of their daily experience,” says Jim McLain, general manager of Construction Specialties Inc.Also consider contrasting colors so assistive devices can easily be spotted and used — something that's important among visually impaired populations.

2. Knowing and understanding the risks is key. Many elders who have fallen experience a significant reduction in their quality of life and ability to function independently, and become fearful of reoccurrence, says McLain.

“Handrails and grab bars usually complete their intended functions without any concerns, “ he says. “This changes when a resident slips and falls or the state cites a violation in a long-term facility, both of which raise liability concerns.”

According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, nearly half of the 1.6 million residents in U.S. nursing facilities will experience a fall this year, and nearly 10% of residents who fall experience serious injuries.

3. Form and function are equally important.

“Designers can now choose from myriad of colors and finish options, including custom and faux wood finishes that withstand wear and tear,” McLain adds.

One of the attributes to look for is strength. According to McLain, nearly one-third of facilities are upgrading their handrails to withstand up to 1,000 pounds of peak loads. They not only protect residents, but also walls and furnishings with incorporated features like crash rails. 

Another focus point is flexibility. Consider folding, wall-mounted fixtures that can be easily engaged when needed and unobtrusive when not. 

“Obviously space is at a premium, so wherever possible, fold-up wall-mounted fixtures and mobility equipment should be selected in order to conserve space,” says Gary Nowitz, president of North American operations for Pressalit Care. Even grab bars and toilet seat safety rails can include a foldaway or movable design feature, adds Jamison Roth, product manager, medical equipment
and medical supplies, Briggs Healthcare.

McLain advises facilities to choose easy-to-install-and-remove fixtures that minimize expense and effort. Consider fixtures that can be retrofitted with replacement covers and caps, he adds.

4. Above all else, experts advise choosing devices for their safety features. 

“Facilities should seek to combine function with form in a way that best meets the needs of residents and staff,” says McLain.

Consider overhead lifts that allow caregivers to more easily perform certain tasks with disabled residents, adds Nowitz.

An obvious but easily overlooked task is failing to secure items like grab bars to studs inside walls, says Roth. 

“When these are used properly, they should function as a support and not as load-bearing,” he says. 

5. Innovation in mobility and assistive devices is brisk. It pays to stay on top of new designs that make your environment a safe place to live and work.

“Much of the impetus for innovation — including for this global ‘Changing Places' movement — is taking place within the realm of social media,” says Nowitz. 

“Parents and care providers are sharing new ideas at unprecedented speed, enabling their individual voices to resonate much more loudly throughout the industry. As a result, manufacturers are able to provide optimal equipment in a much more timely fashion.”