Aging-in-Place Safely

Apr 18, 2014

Good evening.  I’m Susan Kohler, CEO of Missoula Aging Services, the Area Agency on Aging for Missoula and Ravalli counties.  Tonight I want to talk about Older Americans Month, which takes place during May, and this year’s theme “Safe Today, Healthy Tomorrow.” I will also talk about how this theme ties in with a recent keynote address about aging-in-place which I heard at the Montana Gerontology Society conference.

First, some background. Older Americans Month was started to lift up the countless older adults who have made sacrifices to ensure a better life for future generations.  Since 1963, this celebration has recognized older Americans for their contributions and demonstrated our nation’s commitment to helping them stay healthy and active.

The theme “Safe Today, Healthy Tomorrow” is intended to focus on injury prevention and safety to encourage older adults to protect themselves and remain active and independent for as long as possible.

Nationally unintentional injuries to this population have resulted in at least six million medically treated injuries and more the 30,000 deaths every year. An emphasis on safety during Older Americans Month encourages older adults to learn about the many ways they can avoid the leading causes of injury, like falls.  Here are a few basic tips: Ladies, stop wearing high heels! Get exercising, especially exercise that works on balance.  Without proper exercise most people begin to lose their balance starting as early as their forties. Currently the State of Montana promotes a class called Stepping On focused on balance and fall prevention.  It may be available in your community through your senior center, Council on Aging or local hospital. 

Another tip: if you are taking medications, make sure you visit with your physician about how they might interact with other prescription and over-the-counter drugs, certain foods, alcohol and other medical conditions.  Adverse interactions can also impact your ability to drive safely, and even a minor accident can have severe consequences as you age and become more frail.

I want to spend some time on the last tip.  It has to do with what you need to do in your home if you intend to age-in-place. Aging-in-place is the idea that our homes are the most desirable and economical place for housing and care. Therefore making your home safe and prepared for whatever disability may affect you is very important.

I mentioned tying this in with the keynote address at the recent Montana Gerontology Society conference held in Missoula.  Among other things, their theme of “Foundations for Successful Aging” explored the need to look at Universal Design in the home.

Keynote speaker Louis Tenenbaum, a former carpenter and contractor, is now a leading thinker, speaker and consultant on aging-in-place.  His focus is on Universal Design of existing and future homes.  This concept means designing and building homes to be aesthetic and usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability or status in life. Tenenbaum consults with families, builders, developers and product manufacturers on Universal Design solutions and is founder of the Aging in Place Institute. 

Much of what Tenenbaum discussed was about building safe environments to age-in-place.  He maintains that building homes using the Universal Design concept increases a home’s marketability since it appeals to families with young children just as it does to people who have disabilities.  Across the nation communities are adopting Visitability ordinances that push for a minimum of standards. Visitability means that the home has a zero step entrance on an accessible route at the front, back, side or through the garage.  It also requires that all main floor interior passage doors have a 32-inch clear passage space.  A half or full main floor bathroom must have basic maneuvering space, meaning a 5-foot turning circle and open floor space in which a wheelchair can maneuver.  Additional tips include good lighting, grab bars and no throw rugs.

Tenebaum’s talk was well-timed, because on April 7th Missoula’s City Council passed this very ordinance.  That doesn’t make Visitability standards mandatory--only state law could do that. However, an incentive built into the ordinance states that anyone submitting a Visitability design will move to the front of the line during the permitting process.  From what I understand that should be a good incentive!  

I’m proud that our city demonstrated its commitment to helping people of all ages, especially those who want to age-in-place. If you want more information on Visitability or helpful ways you can modify your home in order to age-in-place, contact the Rural Institute at the University of Montana Summit Independent, or the City of Missoula’s Developmental Services.

This is Susan Kohler, CEO of Missoula Aging Services and as always, thanks for listening.