My mom was a jock. She taught me to play tennis when I was seven years old and would wake up at 6 a.m. to hit with me most summer mornings. I finished my tennis career after a disappointing showing in the State Championships my senior year of high school. Mom didn’t quit, though, and carried on with people her own age. She also was killer at ping-pong!
That’s why I wasn’t surprised when, 23 years later, I got a call from the hospital emergency room informing me that she had fallen on the tennis court running down a shot. She’d be released on crutches if I’d come and give her a ride home. Of course, I went.
I took Mom inside and made her as comfortable as possible. Looking around, I noticed that things weren’t as tidy as when my sisters and I had lived there with her. There were stacks of paper and laundry piled in baskets at the head of the basement stairs. The light in the stairwell was burnt out, so I changed it. I offered to do the laundry, but Mom wouldn’t have it. She had friends and they’d look after her.
A Safer Bathroom
Two years later, at age 67, Mom fell off her bike and cracked her pelvis. During three weeks at the rehab facility, she was a champ, or really a show-off, at physical therapy. I had worked as a carpenter for 10 years after graduating from college, even remodeling a nursing home in Brooklyn, so I had an idea of what to do to keep her safe when she got home. I did the following:
- Installed grab bars in her tub/shower and on the wall next to the toilet
- Changed the stationary showerhead for a handheld
- Placed a shower seat in the tub
- Applied non-slip tape to the floor of the bathtub
- Installed a nightlight in the bath
My sisters bought Mom new running shoes with thick soles and lots of traction. They also gave her a couple of pairs of slippers with closed backs and textured soles. Slippery mats in the bath and kitchen were replaced with rubber-backed designs. We placed “gripper mats” underneath area rugs on the hardwood floors.
My sisters also did the unsexy work of clearing away clutter. They went through the stacks of papers and unread mail my mother had kept on the kitchen table, which served as her desk. She kept the overflow, presumably the older documents, in paper bags on the floor. It was her system for keeping her financial affairs in order. But the loose papers and bags on the floor were also a trip hazard that needed to be eliminated. We bought her a two-drawer file cabinet and helped her put away her paperwork whenever we came to visit.
Improved Lighting and Elimination of Hazardous Cords
I noticed that Mom had taken a table lamp from the living room and placed it on the kitchen table to better illuminate her paperwork. The cord was plugged into the wall a few feet from the table and hung to the floor right near the leg of her chair. It was an accident waiting to happen, so I installed a new ceiling box over the kitchen table and ran some cable in a surface-mounted raceway from it to where the existing overhead fixture was wired. I hung a pendant fixture from the new box to serve as a task light. Then I moved the table lamp back where it belonged and tucked the cord behind the sofa to keep it from underfoot.
I knew that I should move the washer and dryer up out of the basement, but at the time, I just didn’t have the bandwidth for a project of that magnitude. To make the basement stairs safer, I added a handrail along the stairwell wall, opposite the existing rail, so Mom could hang on with both hands going up and down. I also covered the smooth wood stairs with textured rubber treads to prevent slipping if she went down in stocking feet.
The light over the basement stairs was still a problem. I wouldn’t want Mom to try to change the bulb herself at this point, so I replaced the incandescent light with a compact fluorescent bulb, which would last a lot longer. I also replaced the toggle switch with a rocker so she could bump it with her elbow to turn the light on if she had her hands full.
Mom never fell in her house as long as she lived in it, but at age 72 she got hurt again at an office party given to commemorate her retirement. They say that as she got up from her seat to make her farewell speech, she suddenly collapsed. Her hip was probably broken before she hit the floor. It was part of having advanced osteoporosis.
After surgery, Mom stayed in her own house for another five years with some help from visiting nurses a few hours a day, several times a week. I continued to make changes to enhance her comfort and safety. I installed hardware in her kitchen cabinets enabling shelves to slide out so she wouldn’t have to get down on the floor or make off-balance reaches up into the wall cabinets. I installed motion-sensors to control the light on her front stoop and in the hallway en route to her bathroom.
These are all tactics to help seniors stay in their homes, but there comes a time for many families when it’s time for a parent to move. When my mom finally agreed to move into an assisted living facility, we were pleased to find a place where she could keep some of her “important” furniture. The apartment was sunny and clean with good lighting day and night, grab bars, and shower safety features in the bath. There were no stairs and the common areas included wide, clear hallways. That’s a crucial part of having a good assisted living facility, and should be top of mind for administrators trying to make the environment desirable for prospective residents.
Michael Chotiner is a DIY expert who writes about home improvement projects and lighting installation and repairs for Home Depot. Michael has worked as a carpenter for 10 years, and has run his own construction business as well. To view many of the indoor lighting options available a Home Depot, you can visit the Home Depot website here.