How to make home a safer place for seniors

Published 3:09 pm Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Dear Savvy Senior,

My parents have lived in the same house for more than 40 years and plan on living there the rest of their lives. The problem is, their house is two-stories and isnt very practical for seniors. What resources can you recommend that can help my elderly parents stay safe and stay put, on a limited budget. &bsp;

Safety-Conscious Sue

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Dear Sue,

Your parents are like most seniors in this country. They want to stay living in their own home as long as theyre physically capable. But for many seniors in their 70s and beyond, staying put can present some real safety challenges. Heres what you should know.

Every year in the U.S. about 7,000 elderly people die in home-related accidents, and millions are seriously injured. Falls are the leading cause of injuries, but the elderly are also at risk for being burned by the stove or scalded by hot water. To help make your parents home a safer, more age-friendly place to live, here are some tips and resources that can help.

Get Informed

Your first step is to learn where the potential hazards lie in your parents house and what you can do to reduce them. A good place to do this is at the Home Safety Councils Web site ( where you can take a house tour that points out the possible dangers room-by-room. Many of the changes the site suggests are simple and inexpensive, like removing clutter and throw rugs to avoid tripping, installing brighter bulbs in existing light fixtures to improve vision and adding grab bars to the bathroom for support.

Get an Assessment

If your parents have medical issues like chronic arthritis or poor vision, ask their doctor to prescribe a home evaluation by an occupational therapist who specializes in home modifications. They can analyze the potential challenges and shortcomings of your parents home to come up with a plan that you, a handyman or a contractor can easily follow. Many health insurance providers, including Medicare, will pay for a home assessment. However, they will not cover the physical upgrades to the home.

Another option is to contact your nearby independent living center (see These are nonprofit centers that provide information on home modifications and assistive living equipment, and many even offer free or low-cost home assessments.

Ways to Pay

If your parents need or want to make substantial changes to their home, but dont have the cash to pay for them, they should consider taking out a home equity loan. Another possibility is a reverse mortgage. Available to people over 62, a reverse mortgage will let your parents convert the equity in their home into cash that doesnt have to be paid back as long as either one of them are living there. But the fees can be substantial, so be sure to speak with a financial planner before taking out this type of mortgage. For information on ways you can tap into your home equity, go to, a site run by the Department of Health and Human Services.

If your parents happen to have long-term care insurance, they should call their insurance agent and ask whether home modifications are covered under their plan and what documentation they need to be reimbursed. A policy will not pay for upgrades if they are still healthy.

If funds are scarce, contact the Area Agency on Aging (call 800-677-1116 or visit to find your local office) near your parents, and inquire about home modification loans and services available to seniors. Many state and local communities have low or no-interest loans, tax credits or other programs to those with low or moderate incomes.

In addition, get in touch with Rebuilding Together (, 800-473-4229), a national nonprofit organization that repairs and modifies homes

of older, low-income homeowners to help them age in place.

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of The Savvy Senior book.~ Savvy Senior written by Jim Miller