The first thing I notice when I enter a home is the floor. Not because I have a floor fetish but because I’m worried that the person opening the door might be unsteady and lose their balance while rushing to let me into their home. I am the “Senior Safety Officer” for the Fire Department’s Safety & Accessibility program and my job is to visit low-to-moderate income elders in their home to provide free smoke detectors, grab bars, and other items to prevent fires and falls.
My experience is that entering an elderly person’s home usually requires navigating a variety of objects “conveniently located” by the door. Objects like a chair, a bag of mail, slippers, a cane. The act of door opening can be even more challenging if the person is using a cane or a walker.
I’m always glad if the floor is solid like formica. Less happy if it is covered in throw rugs. Very sad if it’s old and lumpy. Old and lumpy rugs tend to be covered with lots of furniture and that furniture is covered in precious brick-a-brac or stacks of paper that is generally not to be displaced.
Yesterday I visited a British expatriate, J. P., who had every sort of floor covering. Formica in the entry way, nook, and kitchen, thick lumpy rug in the formal living room, smaller pile rug on the stairs and in the bedrooms.
She walked barefoot in her house and that’s the next thing I notice: her feet. American feet of this generation of seniors are a reflection of years of high heels and chair sitting. They are usually swollen and tightly curled. I’m guessing they have never been elevated above her heart, but I could be wrong. I try not to stare, but the yoga teacher in me wants to cue her to spread her toes. I feel myself spread my toes and flex my feet in response. I feel my heart go out to her as I watch her flutter unsteadily back to her seat in the nook. I bring myself back to how I can help right here right now.
J.P. is sweet and happy to have me visit and immediately expresses a desire to have more visitors so I pull out my “Alameda Friendly Visitors” flyer and tell her that her wish is my command, there is a program here in Alameda specifically designed to match volunteer visitors with elders who crave more company. She is delighted.
Then we discuss my program which offers simple home renovations to help low-income seniors be able to “age in place” safely. Evidence based research shows that precautions such as grab bars in showers, cognitive behavioral training, and balance exercises can help reduce falls and injuries.
I wear a uniform and my job is to be an official nag/authority figure that can deliver “the truth” without instilling fear. When I inform my clients that a throw rug should be discarded because it is a falling hazard they say, “Oh yes, my daughter has been saying that I should do that…” to which I reply, “It’s important that you consider letting her help you address this situation because our goal is to keep you safe in your home.” They smile and nod and I kind of know that they won’t do it until they trip on it.
Yesterday I added: “I’m betting you had to care for someone once in your life?”
To which J.P. replied, “Oh yes! I worked very hard.”
So I said, “Well, so now it’s your turn, you’ve earned the right and you deserve some help.”
She responded well to my gentle bossiness and expressed so much gratitude I made a vow to bring her some meyer lemons from my tree.
The thing that wakes me up at night is the idea that I’m there to promote, “aging in place”. It’s important because in reality it is probably the best and cheapest thing for an adult to do over the long haul but most of my client’s homes are not really set up very well. What I used to call “my dream house” (a big spread downstairs and all bedrooms upstairs) is actually not too great for aging in place. In my mind’s eye I see their little bodies barely navigating the five feet from the nook to the front door and I wonder how they get up those stairs? Ideally there would be an office that could become a bedroom downstairs. That’s how I remodeled my aunt Dorothy’s place. I had her move out of the master suite upstairs and I renovated her downstairs bedroom and bathroom into a wheelchair accessible suite.
All of this happened one summer when she had a very dramatic fall and was living in assisted care for a while. She decided she wanted to go home so I got to work with her permission.
We were lucky because she had the financial means to pay for the work, and I had the time to help and I guess that’s the point I’d like to make. Perhaps we should all, while we are healthy and mobile, decide sooner rather than later to make our living areas accessible for the future. Maybe plan for a time when your more aged mom will visit in the future and then remodel a downstairs bed and bath with her future older self in mind.
Just be sure to concentrate on the floor and all the stuff on the floor. Imagine a wheelchair rolling through your house and what it would take to make that easy. I know it sounds grim, but you will learn to love the freedom the space provides.