August 1995 // Volume 33 // Number 4 // Ideas at Work // 4IAW5

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Improving Independent Living for Older Americans

This article describes the evaluation results of a housing educational program that focused on major and minor safety and design changes that can be made in the homes of older persons to increase independent living. Survey results from participants revealed that those changes that are less complicated or costly to make such as checking facilities, removing items, or rearranging items, are more likely to be implemented. Changes that require installation and renovation are more likely to be considered for a future home and not implemented in their current home. The specific changes made by the participants are also described.

Sarah D. Kirby, Ph.D.
Extension Housing Specialist
North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service
North Carolina State University
Internet address:

Edwina Douglas, M.S.
Lincoln County Extension Home Economist
Oklahoma State University
Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service
Chandler, Oklahoma

Living independently at home is what most older people want to do. In a recent study, 85% of the respondents indicated that they would prefer to remain in their current home and never move. Seventy-six percent of the respondents also indicated that they have made no future plans for where they will ultimately live (American Association of Retired Persons, 1993). Unfortunately, the living environment of many elderly persons does not allow them to continue their desired autonomous lifestyle. The physical changes that occur as a part of the aging process, coupled with a poorly designed and arranged living space, make it difficult to continue to live independently.

"A Home To Change With" is a program designed to assist older individuals in making both major and minor safety and design changes in their homes that will increase independent living. To assist older Oklahomans in making changes in their homes to increase independence, "A Home to Change With" was conducted in three counties. Five hundred and sixty-six individuals from senior citizen nutrition sites and Family and Community Education Association groups were reached with this program.

One month after the program, participants were surveyed to determine whether or not they had made any changes in their living environments as a result of receiving this housing education. Individuals were asked questions regarding specific safety features in their homes. The survey asked what features their homes had prior to the educational program, what features were added as a result of the program, what features they plan to add in the next six months, and what features they would look for if they were to purchase a home. Unfortunately, respondents were not asked to indicate their age, so there is no data concerning the housing safety and age level.

The survey revealed that many of the participants had made changes in their housing to assist with safety prior to participating in this educational program. The survey also revealed that participants made changes as a result of receiving the education. Safety changes were made throughout the home, but particularly in stairway areas and bathroom spaces. Concerning stairways, 52% of the respondents indicated that prior to the meeting, they had such safety features as handrails, contrasting colors on the risers, and treads for aid in perception, enclosed risers and textured treads. Ten percent indicated that they had added these features as a result of what they had learned at the program, and 38% planned to add these safety features within the next six months.

In the area of bathroom safety, 50% reported that they already had grab bars installed in their tub/shower and around their toilet area. Almost 6% had added them since participating in the educational program, and 44% planned to install grab bars within the next six months. Sixty-one percent had already removed unsafe throw rugs in the bathroom area, while 21% removed them after learning of their hazards. Additional safety changes made after the program included: resetting the hot water heater to 120 degrees in order to avoid burns (16%), checking wattage in light bulbs in order to increase visibility (18%), checking smoke detector batteries (16%), and installing fire extinguishers (12%).

The actions or design features listed in the survey can be grouped into six categories according to their level of difficulty. The six categories are those that require checking existing facilities, removing unsafe items, rearranging existing facilities, installation of safety devices, renovation of existing facilities and remodeling of the home. The responses revealed that the more difficult the action or feature was to achieve, the more unlikely it was to have been done prior to receiving the education, and the more likely it was to be an item considered in a future home, and not the one in which they were currently living. It may be that the simpler items to change such as checking, removing and rearranging are fairly common knowledge and participants learned of the more difficult changes during the educational experience. Another possibility is that there is less cost associated with checking, removing, and rearranging than there is with installation and renovation. Older persons are often on a fixed income and may need time to plan and save for major housing expenditures. Future study is needed to determine this relationship.

While renovating a single-family home may be quite expensive, depending on the complexity of the project, it is emotionally and financially beneficial for older persons to remain in their living environment. As the aging population continues to grow, more and more people will be looking for ways to maintain their independence. It is vitally important that older persons have access to information that will allow them to "age in place." Cooperative Extension can provide this education and help assist with the planning necessary to maintain independent living. The Cooperative Extension Service can also help older individuals in identifying renovation assistance programs to help with making housing changes. Equally important is Extension's opportunity to educate housing providers, such as builders and remodelers. These are the professionals that can help identify modifications or features that can assist with independent living. Educating the housing provider can also help insure that supportive features are incorporated into newly constructed housing.


American Association of Retired Persons. (1993). Understanding senior housing for the 1990's. Washington, DC: Author.