Modifying Home Environments for Sensory Loss
By Jack L. Bowersox, Manager
Life Wellness Communities Development Company, LLC
As individuals age, it is common to experience changes in sensory perceptions—vision, hearing, smell, etc. Modifying one’s home environment to compensate for sensory loss can assist the older adult in maximizing their independence and ability to age in place. First, it is important to understand how the environment is perceived and negotiated by the older person.
As the eye ages, the lens hardens and yellows. The hardening of the lens, which occurs unevenly, will cause bright rays of light or glare to be misdirected within the eye and impair vision. This vision impairment also occurs when an older person is sitting in direct sunlight. The pupil’s reaction rate is slowed, which impairs vision when changing from dark to light areas. Older persons require more light than younger people to accomplish a task, if they are to avoid eye strain. Consider these home modifications to address vision changes.
- For interior window treatments, pull-down shades should be used, along with draperies, to reduce sunlight penetration from the upper portion of the window. Tinted Mylar shades will allow for exterior viewing, while reducing window glare.
- Glossy or shiny surfaces should be totally avoided due to their reflective qualities that cause glare. Surfaces of special concern are floors, walls, tables, countertops, and cabinet work. Sealants and waxes that leave a gloss or shine should not be used.
- Fluorescent fixtures should be selected carefully due to potential flickering and humming to which older people are sensitive. Flickering and humming are generally caused by worn out ballasts (rather than the bulbs or starters), which should be changed periodically.
- Exterior lighting should be located in a manner that prevents it from shining into windows. Globe-type fixtures create tremendous glare, and vision beyond such a fixture is almost impossible. Walkway lighting should be low enough to light the surface evenly, without allowing light rays to be diffused at eye level.
- Although colors are an effective means of communicating with older persons, the yellowing of the lens causes difficulty in distinguishing blues, greens, and pastel colors. Very dark navy, black, brown, and gray tones are also difficult to discriminate. Bold patterns, such as stripes, should be used instead of small, contrasting, intricate patterns that may cause dizziness.
Older persons experience difficulty in discriminating normal conversation against a background of competing noises; these noises may be generated from the air conditioning system, traffic, echoes, music, dishes, and/or other conversations. As hearing loss begins to occur, most older adults will be less able to hear high frequencies. Modifications that can help include the following.
- Tight window weather seals should be maintained to reduce exterior noise.
- Sound absorbing materials should be used on walls and floors. These materials include acoustical ceilings, carpeting, wall coverings, draperies, and wall hangings.
- Audible warning signals, such as smoke alarms, should be equipped with flashing lights.
The sense of touch becomes increasingly important as one grows older, because it is not reduced as a mere function of age. As other senses diminish, the older person will rely more on the sense of touch to pick up stimuli from the environment. Some design responses that capitalize on the older adult’s sense of touch include the following.
- Wall surfaces and flooring may effectively be covered with tactile materials to increase their “readability”. Changes in these materials may be used to signify an important feature or location within the environment. For example, a change in floor covering, say from wood to carpet, can indicate moving from a room to a hallway. This concept can also be effectively designed into outside porches and patios.
- The substitution of wood for metal is not only more visually attractive, but also warmer and more inviting to touch.
- Tactile decorations such as draperies, coarse wall hangings, plants, and nonabsorbent upholstery should be used.
Design for aging-in-place is imperative, because it helps older adults to remain in their homes, where they can be both safe and comfortable.