Green Aging in Place: Home Modification for the Elderly and the Environment

My grandmother, who lives alone, is beginning to show some signs of aging, but she is too stubborn to ask for help from anyone. My husband and I decided that the time could be right to help Grandma make some changes around the house which could make life easier for her in the future. He is somewhat handy as a carpenter so we knew that he could do most of the work himself, but deciding what needed to be done to make the place safer was a bit trickier.

Grandma already uses a cane because of an old knee injury that gives her trouble. She also has some issues with balance so the cane helps with that as well. Because my husband and I work hard to live a green lifestyle, we wanted to make changes in the most eco-friendly way we could, even if we had to spend just a bit more to achieve the results we wanted.

Green Home Modifications for Elder Comfort and Safety

I told my grandmother about our plans and asked her to walk through the house with me to share any problems she might currently have or could envision in the future. Her first suggestion was to move everything upstairs, including her bed, to a lower floor, but this seemed impractical. Instead, we’re going to look at reconditioned stair lifts. Most have been used for only a short time, and we like the idea of being able to extend the life of a pre-owned model, both to save Grandma some money and to be greener.

With that problem solved, Grandma indicated that there were several dark areas around the house where she could use more lighting. We told her we would be happy to replace her current bulbs with brighter fluorescent lights that would give her much longer between changes, and save energy. Then, she would not have to call us to change them as often. This made her happy because she loves to feel independent and hates to ask us for help, and it would save us time too.

Even though Grandma can still get in and out of the shower, she does feel a bit unsteady on the slippery surfaces. We put handrails and a shower seat on the list of adaptations for the bathroom. These will not only assist her to bend and sit, but they will make us feel that we have done something to keep her safe. I plan to get these items second-hand from a friend who is renovating his bathroom.

While we were working on the house, we also decided to remove the smaller floor rugs which could cause Grandma to trip. I plan to give these away on FreeCycle to a younger couple who can use them. My husband also plans to widen all of the doorways and remove the hallway doors just in case Grandma needs to use a wheelchair in the future. Again, we will offer the doors on Freecycle rather than sending them to landfill.

One issue my husband raised is that Grandma spends most of her day sitting down and therefore tends to feel the cold. Like many elderly people, she keeps her heating on all day. We looked at the various options to find a greener solution. Grandma’s heating comes from electric storage heaters. We decided it would be very disruptive and impractical to put in a completely new green heating system. However, we have compromised by switching Grandma over to a green energy company, which supplies electricity generated by wind turbines.

We are currently researching what financial help is available to seniors who want to put new insulation in their homes. Grandma already has cavity wall insulation, but by adding thicker insulation to the attic space, she could reduce her energy bills and help the planet. I’ve read about eco-friendly insulation made from sheep’s wool, so this is something I plan to look into.

Grandma has double-glazed windows, but her curtains are unlined. To help keep the heat in, I’m in the process of sewing linings into the curtains and adding pulls to make them easier to open and close. Grandma has always had a “make do and mend” philosophy, so she’s pleased that I’m reusing her old curtain fabric.

Another thing that became apparent as we went from room to room is that Grandma is struggling with housework. I try to do a bit of cleaning whenever I visit, but I’ve decided a better solution is for Grandma to get a cleaner. I saw an ad for a local cleaner who uses only eco-friendly cleaning products, and have employed her to clean Grandma’s house once a week. This arrangement is working well. Not only is the house kept clean in a way that minimizes the impact on the environment, Grandma enjoys having a chat with the cleaner!

The cleaner is also very good about putting Grandma’s newspapers, bottles and cans in the recycling box outside. We’ve bought Grandma a new container for her kitchen that has separate compartments for trash and recyclable items, so it is much easier for her to recycle her waste.

We’ve made some other changes in the kitchen too, to make life easier and safer for Grandma. First of all we had a good clear out and donated any items that never got used to the local charity shop. Once we had identified the crockery, cutlery, pots and pans that Grandma uses regularly, I’ve made sure these are now stored at a lower level and within easy reach, to avoid Grandma having to bend or reach up. My husband has adapted the larder by making some pull-out shelves and drawers so that items are easily accessible.

We feel good about all of the changes we’ve made and those we still plan to make. We’ve tried to keep them as green as we can with as little waste as possible. At the very least, we hope we’ve managed to make my grandmother’s house comfortable enough for her to live happily and safely in her own home for several more years.

Guest author Claire Bradshaw does her best to apply her green principles to every aspect of her life. She writes for a site that offers tips about buying stair lifts and believes home adaptations can greatly improve the quality of life for the older generation.

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Image credits: Neeta Lind at Flickr under a Creative Commons license; cooljinny at Flickr under a Creative Commons license

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