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Contact Information: Tanya Klein Public Relations 973-596-3433

NJIT Environmental Psychologist Offers Tips on How Elderly Can Stay Home

Environmental psychologist Richard Olsen, PhD, and research architect Lynn Hutchings are people on a mission. The researchers, based in the architecture school at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), would like to see older people and people with dementia live better, safer and more comfortable lives staying in their homes.

In the vanguard of a growing national movement to enable the aging population and individuals with disabilities to remain at home, the pair recently co-authored A Home for Life, NJIT Press, 2005. The text is a soft cover, easy-to-read, 78-page guide for creating, safe, comfortable homes.  A grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service supported their work.

“Unfortunately, the home environment is not well suited for many people to remain in as they age,” said Olsen.  “Safety problems abound, especially when it comes to exterior maintenance.”  However, Olsen and Hutchings believe that vigilant attention to detail and common sense can keep many a loved one in their familiar surroundings.

“Research shows that living at home for many people is better than being sent to an institution,” said Olsen. Fifteen states, to date, have arrangements so that Medicare money can pay for daily visits from home health aides to people in their homes. Similar legislation is now pending in New Jersey as well as a pilot program for Ocean County.

“The thing to keep in mind when assessing a home is to remain flexible and honest when assessing the capabilities of the individual,” said Olsen.  “Not everything works for everyone. There is no silver bullet.  What we suggest are some ideas to try that we have seen often work for some people.”

“We also remind everyone to assess the situation every few months to insure that the living conditions remain viable,” Hutchings added.  “You will need to be doing different things at different stages of the person’s life. But with a certain amount of common sense and attention to detail, loved ones can remain in their homes.”

The book focuses on many good tips for home safety, but the ones for exterior maintenance pinpoint among some of the most potentially dangerous and overlooked spots. “In many homes, the most trouble occurs before anyone even reaches the front door,” said Hutchings. “Unfortunately, we get so used to seeing everyday landscapes, these hazards, don’t pop out at us.”

What to do?

“The remedy begins with a pad and pencil and a 10-minute safety walk from the street, up the driveway to the front door,” Olsen said. “Walkways, driveways and front, side and rear yards all need to be accessible, easy to walk on and free of tripping hazards.”  Olsen suggests using the following checklist to ensure safe and comfortable surroundings. 

Driveways and Sidewalks

  • Driveways must have a minimum width of 13 feet to accommodate a van and provide a walking aisle on both sides. If the van has a side lift for a wheelchair, then a minimum of 19 feet is necessary.
  • Level driveway sections where people enter and exit vehicles.
  • Uneven walkways must be repaired or repaved.
  • Steep walkways need regarding and that is impossible, install cylindrical railings.
  • Trim or remove encroaching shrubbery and grass on sidewalks.
  • If possible get rid of steps and make a slope instead. If impossible, install railings on both sides.
  • Transitions between walking surfaces should be smooth and seamless.

Railings and Steps

  • All steps need a railing. Even single steps.
  • Lower riser height when possible from the standard 8 inches to 6-7 inches.
  • Rectangular steps are safe; curved and semi-circle steps are dangerous.
  • Steps need smooth, even treads.
  • Low-rise steps may need to be ramped.
  • All steps need double railings.
  • Railings should be cylindrical. They are easier to grip.
  • On wide steps, railings should be installed close to the most direct path to the door  so they are within easy reach.
  • Whenever possible, create an on-grade entry.

Door and Doorway Design

  • Doors and stairs need good lighting.
  • Trim shrubbery from steps and doors.
  • Install a vertical grab bar at the side of the door for frail people who need to pull themselves up a high doorstep.
  • Replace the high door thresholds with flat ones or install a special threshold ramp.
  • Plane doors difficult to open.
  • Widen doors to 36 inches a wheelchair or other mobility assist is needed.
  • Consider a press plate or remote-controlled automatic door opener.
  • Install a closer on storm doors that works slowly.
  • Hinges for storm and main doors should be on the same side.
  • Install lever door handles.
  • Have peepholes at the proper height so short people and people in wheelchairs can see who is at the door.
  • Install easy-to-use locks, perhaps even a key card lock.
  • Install track covers or threshold ramps on both sides of a sliding door.
  • Remove door mats that are worn or slippery. Install one with anti-skid backing. 

To order copies of the book, contact the Center for Architecture and Building Science Research at 973-596-8439 to request an order form.

NJIT, New Jersey's science and technology university, enrolls approximately 10,000 students pursuing bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in 120 programs. The university consists of six colleges: Newark College of Engineering, College of Architecture and Design, College of Science and Liberal Arts, School of Management, College of Computing Sciences and Albert Dorman Honors College. U.S. News & World Report's 2012 Annual Guide to America's Best Colleges ranked NJIT in the top tier of national research universities. NJIT is internationally recognized for being at the edge in knowledge in architecture, applied mathematics, wireless communications and networking, solar physics, advanced engineered particulate materials, nanotechnology, neural engineering and e-learning. Many courses and certificate programs, as well as graduate degrees, are available online through the Division of Continuing Professional Education.