According to the American Occupational Therapy Association, two of the biggest concerns for aging Americans are “preventing falls and aging in place.” If you share these sentiments, you probably see your own home as a familiar and comfortable place, and you want to stay there. You may also feel as though you must continue to live in your beloved home to prove to yourself and others that you can live independently. That’s perfectly natural, too, but understand that aging in place, and living independently in your home for the long haul, may require you to make some changes to way you’ve always had things set up there.
If you’ve considered modifying your home to make it more accessible, you may have had a geriatric social worker, occupational therapist or other professional come in to evaluate your needs and help you come up with a plan. But you think about modifying your garage to make sure it remains useful to you as you age? The garage is often overlooked when people think about making changes to a home so they can age in place, and that can mean that all the things you rely your garage for—a workspace, a storage space, and even a sheltered place to park—won’t be available to you as you get older. Fortunately there are some simple steps you can take to make sure your garage stays useful for the long haul.
Thinking About the Garage Location
Ideally, your garage should be on the same floor as the rest of your home. That will make it easier for you to come and go – regardless of whether you’re going into the garage to get something to bring back into the house, or going there to go somewhere else entirely.
The amount of space in your garage is also a factor: If you use a wheelchair, walker or other mobility aid, the National Association of Home Builders’ Aging-in-Place Checklist suggests that there be at least 5 feet between a handicapped-accessible van and a car. This space is necessary to help you get in and out of the vehicle and get into a wheelchair. If you have a one-car garage and you’re storing a handicapped van in it, you’ll still need that five feet between the door of the van and the wall.
The National Association of Home Builders’ Aging-in-Place Checklist suggests that there be at least 5 feet between a handicapped-accessible van and a car.
If you have to use steps to access your garage, you should make sure you can get up and down those steps safely—especially if you you use a walker or wheelchair, or are likely to use those steps to carry groceries to the house from your car. While a ramp may accommodate a wheelchair, it may not allow you to carry things from the garage to the house—or vice versa. Don’t forget, too, that as long as you’re running errands or going grocery shopping on your own, then you’ll want a guarantee that you can getting your food and other purchases into the house safely. What’s more, if you use a walker or other mobility aid, the potential for falls may make a ramp an impractical solution.
If you live in a multi-level home, you may have had a chair rail installed to help you get up and down the stairs safely. Installing this kind of lift may be a practical alternative to a wheelchair ramp in your garage—especially if you frequently have to carry cumbersome items. In addition, The National Aging in Place Council suggests that you consider installing a garage lift if the design of your home is such that you have to go up and down a flight of stairs to get into or out of an attached garage, even if you don’t expect to use a wheelchair or a scooter.
If installing a chair rail or garage lift are beyond your means, then do install a ramp. Install safety rails on both sides, and make sure that the the rails and ramp are made of slip-resistant material. (Eliminating slippery surfaces should be one of your top considerations in every part of your house as you age in place.)
More About Doors
As you focus on your ramp or lift, don’t neglect what they’re leading up to—your door. Every doorway opening into your garage should be at least three feet wide, and may need to be widened to accommodate wheelchairs, walkers or other mobility aids. It’s also important to have some extra room so you can carry groceries or other purchases into the house more easily.
Once your doors are the right size, you may want to have a look at the doorknob. Loss of strength in the hands because of arthritis or general aging make it harder for people to open doors because they have to turn the knob as they unlock it. If you’ve noticed that it’s harder for you to open doors because you have to turn a doorknob, you may want to consider replacing it with a lever that is easier to turn.
Locks can be made easier to manipulate as well. Do you have a hard time hanging on to packages when you’re trying to hold onto a doorknob with one hand and turn the key to unlock it with the other hand? There’s a simple solution to that problem that will make it very easy to get into your house. A keyless entry consists of a digital pad. You set the code by choosing however many numbers the system requires.
Once the keypad is installed and connected to the lock, you can get into your home by entering the code you created. Some keypads allow you set up different codes for people who are authorized to enter your home. For added security, it’s a good idea to have every authorized family member and home helpers who come over, set up a code using numbers they choose. And if you want to go high end, they now make locks for houses that work at the press of a button like the keyless entry fobs for cars.
Getting Rid of Clutter
In homes throughout the United States, the garage isn’t just a place where you put the car when it’s not in use. Garages often become catch-all storage sheds for all the excess “stuff” that no longer fits in the house. If you’re throwing stuff in the garage to store it, all that clutter takes up valuable space and reduces the amount of open area you have to get in and out of your car or even just move around in.
Piles of stuff in a garage also present a falling hazard: they block walkways, and they tend to be unstable. These risks only increase when you or members of your family rifle through the boxes of stuff that you’re storing in the garage. Disorganized stuff leads to closed-off walkways, and to stuff falling on the floor. Every time that happens, you put yourself at risk of hidden fall and slipping hazards.
What’s more, all the junk you throw into your garage can turn it into a fire trap. This is especially true if you use your garage to store flammable chemicals or barbecue supplies in the garage.
Getting rid of junk and creating more space in your garage is the smartest thing you can do to make your garage a safer and more functional part of your home. While you are decluttering, organize the stuff you want to keep so you can see what you have—or consult a company that designs and installs garage storage systems. Contact your local landfill or sanitation department to find out how to dispose of chemicals or materials that can’t be thrown in the garbage or recycling. No senior who lives alone should have toxic chemicals or flammable substances around.
Add an Organized Storage System With Easy Accessibility
By the time you’re ready to put back the things you’ve decided to keep, you may have talked to professionals that provide people with customized storage solutions for their garage. If you think you may not want to keep things in the same place all the time, it’s probably a good idea to have a system that makes it easy to move things around.
Wire grid systems are ideal for storing garden tools, rakes, shovels and other outdoor stuff. A combination of baskets and hooks for hanging things turns otherwise unused wall space into valuable storage. Hand and power tools that pose a danger to children should be stored in a secure place that is only accessible to adults.
The Garage Door
You might not think that the garage door warrants any special attention. After all, most garage doors are automated these days. But there are some things to consider here as well. For example, The National Association of Home Builders’ Aging-in-Place Checklist reminds homeowners that a raised-roof van—the kind needed for those with an in-vehicle wheelchair lift—needs nine feet of clearance, more than most trucks or SUVs and greater than the standard height for a garage. This means that the garage ceiling and garage door may have to be modified.
If you’re customizing doors anyway, you’ll be able to add features such as smart technology, which will allow you to use a smartphone app to open the garage door, so you won’t need to fumble around looking for the garage door opener. If your smartphone responds to voice commands, you’ll be able to tell the phone that you want to open the garage door, and you won’t even have to open the app on your phone.
Automatic garage doors openers that trigger lights when someone enters the garage will increase the safety of anyone who enters or leaves the garage, regardless of whether they’re doing so when exiting or entering the car. The light is on a timer, but you should find out if you can adjust the timer settings, so the light stays on until you leave the garage.
That automatic garage door light, however, is unlikely to provide you with enough light to see things in the garage or around it, or to deter would-be trespassers. But before you make plans to increase the amount of light in your garage, you may want to consult with a licensed electrician to discuss your needs and whether you’ll need to update or upgrade your fixtures and wiring. As you go through this process, you should also consider installing a backup power source, so you don’t wind up in a dark garage during a power failure.
To eliminate any potential problems you have when going to turn a light fixture on or off, you may also want to consider alternatives to the standard light switch. Smart technology may make it possible for you to use your voice to turn lights off and on, and you may, once again, be able to turn them on from a smartphone app. The advantages to automating indoor and outdoor household systems include the ability to turn lights on before you enter the garage, or turn them off after you’ve left the garage, so you won’t have to go back to turn off the lights if you forget to do so before you leave.
Don’t discount the importance of adding high-intensity bright lights to the entry to the garage – whether it is attached or detached. Floodlights that are connected to motion sensors will illuminate the driveway and walkway to your home’s front door. Floodlights that are triggered by movement add to the safety of the outside of your home. If you have a detached garage, install over-the-door light fixtures that have a built-in photoelectric sensor that turns them on at sunset and off at dawn.
Garage Flooring Products to Reduce the Likelihood of Falling
Concrete is not indestructible. It gets slippery when wet, it’s hard and unforgiving, and it develops holes and cracks—especially when you drop things on it. There are two ways to treat a garage floor. You can apply a coating, which requires extensive preparation to make sure that the floor is thoroughly clean and dry, but none of the substances that are used to coat garage floors will decrease the likelihood that an older adult who lives alone will fall. Alternately, you can use a floor cover.
Two Floor Covers That Are Ideal for Seniors Who Are Aging-In-Place
Rigid Plastic Tiles— These tiles are very easy to install. You can vacuum the floor or sweep it thoroughly and then you’re ready to lay the tiles down. The thick plastic from which they are made gives them a rigidity that prevents them from contracting and expanding because of weather extremes. They also tend to be perforated so that water, accidental spills, or melting snow are allowed to drain away from the walking surface. Since the holes provide plenty of air circulation, they lower the chance that mold can accumulate under the tiles. They resist chemical corrosion, and they’re very easy to clean. They also come in a variety of colors and styles.
Installation is also fairly easy. Each time two tiles connect, you’ll hear a click. You don’t need any fancy tools to get the two loops to connect. You don’t need to have the strength of Hercules or Superman. Just step on every tile and listen for the clicking sound.
The greatest disadvantage to rigid plastic tiles that snap together is probably the cost. The cost of covering an entire garage floor with these tiles is easily four times as expensive as the cost of applying a coating—but if that’s too expensive, you can always consider only covering a portion of your floor with these tiles.
Flexible Interlocking Tiles— These tiles offer the safety of slip resistance and comfort because the material from which they are made feels like a soft cushion. These tiles are also easy to install, so you may not need to hire a professional. The design of these tiles is such that they resist spills and other fluids, and you don’t have to worry about liquid leaking through the seams. Flexible interlocking tiles aren’t as strong as the rigid plastic ones that snap together. That means that they can’t support the amount of weight that the hard things can withstand. These tiles typically come in sheets, so you cut them into pieces with a utility knife. Interlocking tiles are as easy to replace as the rigid ones. Because they are soft and pliable, flexible interlocking tiles are susceptible to expansion and contraction. For that reason, it is critical that you leave space for any movement that is the result of direct sun exposure and weather extremes.
One final note about flooring: Check with your city or county about local code requirements for garage floors. In some places, if you live in a one story home, the floor of your garage needs to be sloped away from the home to prevent car fumes and carbon monoxide from getting into the house.
Equip Your Garage With a Fire Extinguisher and Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Detectors
On the subject of carbon monoxide, it’s absolutely imperative that you install a carbon monoxide detector in your garage. If there is even a remote possibility that an older adult might forget to turn the car off, a carbon monoxide detector will alert people inside the house to the potential danger that the invisible gas may present.
You should have fire extinguishers handy throughout your home, and the garage shouldn’t be any exception. Also plan to install fire alarms in your garage—after all, fires can start anywhere, and the particular combination of flammable materials and unavoidable clutter that you find in any garage can lead to a fire hazard. Contact your local fire department to find out about getting flashing smoke detectors that are designed to alert people with hearing impairments who wouldn’t know that the smoke detector was blaring.
You can go further: these days an alarm system isn’t just a decorative piece of electronic equipment meant to deter would-be burglars. Today’s alarm systems have built-in safety features that are sophisticated enough to save your life regardless of the nature of the emergency you face. Some systems come with smoke detectors and sprinklers set up so they go off automatically when the need arises. The best alarm systems are connected to a 24/7 response center that can notify family members, police, fire department or emergency medical services should the need arise.
Install an Emergency Phone Line and Medical Response System in Your Garage
Although many people believe that landline telephones are a thing of the past, old habits die hard, especially when it comes to elderly adults. It may be hard to imagine that anyone would ever leave the house—even to go to the garage—without their mobile phone, but they do. So if you’re in the process of retrofitting your house to accommodate aging in place, you need to think of every modification you can make to create a safer environment, and installing a phone—or even just putting in a station for a cordless phone—is one of the easiest ways to insure yourself or your loved ones against accidents.
If your home has an emergency medical alert system, you’ll also want to make sure that its features are accessible from the garage. There are many types of emergency medical assistance devices on the market today. Some are hard wired to a landline and others are wireless. Especially if you have a detached garage, you may be too far from the base station for your pendant or wristband to work when an emergency occurs there. By adding a phone line and base station to your garage, you are not only extending the distance that your system will cover. You’re also making sure that regardless of where you are, whether you’re inside, outside, or in or around your garage, that you’ll never have to worry about being able to get help when you need it.
Don’t let the details overwhelm you. Consumer Reports published a helpful guide that will show you what to look for when you’re thinking about subscribing to a medical alert system, and making sure you’ll be able to access help from your garage is as simple as knowing the base station range and using a tape measure. At the same time, the reassurance these systems give users and their families comes at a price. Discuss your situation with your medical team and other home and healthcare professionals, and get a sense from them of what you need in the way of medical alert communication systems – especially if you don’t have home health care helpers who spend time with you every day.
The Driveway or Entrance Path to the Garage
Most homes have a path that leads to the entry of an attached or detached garage. The surface of this walkway needs to be smooth. Any holes or cracks in the concrete pose a potential safety risk for an elderly individual who uses a cane, a walker or wheelchair. Since people lose physical strength as they age, a driveway surface that isn’t level poses far too great a falling risk to neglect.
A driveway should also have adequate drainage to prevent ice and water from accumulating. Slippery surfaces increase the probability that an aging adult might fall.
Whether you are in the process of remodeling a garage, or just now thinking about renovating it to help yourself or an older adult relative, focus on the things you need to do to make it a safer and more suitable place. A garage serves many vital functions in a home, and as you age in place, those functions could take on an even greater importance. So don’t neglect your garage as you get your home ready for the long haul.
The garage is often overlooked when people think about making changes to a home so they can age in place, and that can mean that all the things you rely your garage for won’t be available to you as you get older.