Practicing Aging


"Practice makes perfect!"

If you want to master the skills you need to be good at singing, or cricket, or NASCAR racing there is one thing you must do. Practice!

In the Disability Rights Movement we say we have been "practicing for getting old." The skills and knowledge we have generated in the process is collected in what is called Universal Design. Now, with 78 million Americans getting old - but without having spent all those years practicing - some are developing workout routines that involve caring for an older parent. Predictably, they are adopting one of the key inventions of the disability community, Universal Design.

n estimated half million people in Arizona are informal caregivers for a family member or friend, and a majority of those are caring for aging parents.

Whether those parents are staying in their own home or have moved in with you, it can be confounding dealing with their diminished physical and mental capabilities and their often heightened determination to stay independent.

This month, the non-profit Foundation for Senior Living opened the FSL Caregiver House to give adult children and their aging parents a hands-on place to see how to adapt their own homes to make life easier and safer or determine what to include in a future home.

Part model home and part resource center, the FSL Caregiver House demonstrates practical solutions to everyday issues confronted by aging adults and the family and friends caring for them.

One side of the home is a typical Valley ranch house - doorways, hallways, kitchens and bathrooms that can be hard to navigate for older people. This side features the latest in adaptive equipment designed to make life easier and safer for the elderly and those caring for them.

On the other side of this home are a kitchen, bathroom and bedroom created with universal design elements that the aging 78 million baby boomers may want to add to a new home to prepare for their future.

"Over our lifetime, all of us will have a caregiver role that we didn't plan and now find we need support and service," says Steve Hastings, director of real estate for the FSL.

Outfitting a home for a parent who has lost the spring in his step but wants to remain independent in his own home, or yours, requires more than grab bars and ramps, Hastings says.

In fact, most grab bars are placed in the wrong location, says Jodi Stanley, with the FSL's Community Connections program.

Shown in the Caregiver House bathrooms, for instance, are various adaptive aids, including a floor-to-ceiling "grab-bar pole" that can be moved from room to room; a sliding bathtub-transfer chair; and a Roman-tile walk-in shower that eliminates stepping up and over the side of a bathtub. (But if that's required, there's a tub side handle to assist moving in and out.)

"Most people don't even know what they need," Stanley says.

In the kitchen you'll find a raised dishwasher that eliminates bending over and a microwave that's in a drawer under the stovetop to ensure easy access. The island is wheelchair height, and a variety of floor surfaces illustrates the availability of floor coverings.

When visitors to the Caregiver House see features such as the waist-high microwave drawer or lever-type door handles, as opposed to knobs, ideas are triggered for possible solutions in their home or their parents', Stanley says.

Moreover, universal design elements, such as wider hallways and doorways, seamless thresholds and smooth walking surfaces, are as practical for young families as for aging boomers and their parents.

"What is good for a stroller is also good for a walker," Hastings says.

Quality of life often is overlooked when it comes to trying to make a home safe and adaptable for aging people.

The Caregiver House has put as much thought into the outdoors as the indoors and in providing for the caregiver as for the aging person.

Walkways are extended and widened to accommodate walkers and wheelchairs. Different surfaces are used to give people an idea of which works best before they invest in one for their own home. Areas are widened with rows of bricks to allow for turning around a wheelchair. Flower beds are raised to let gardeners care for plants without having to bend over or crouch down. And there are seating areas to just relax and enjoy the outdoors.

The Caregiver House demonstrates that homes don't have to look institutional because they contain a hospital bed, grab bars and portable toilets in a bedroom. Caregiver House also features touch-screen computer terminals to access information, and experts who can help solve individual problems and steer people to resources or adaptive equipment.

"A lot of people don't identify with the term 'caregiver,' " Hastings says. "They say, 'It's just taking care of my dad. I'm not a caregiver.' "

It's for them that this one-stop resource center was created.

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