Home Organization for Seniors with Disabilities and the Newly Disabled

As the population in America continues to age, we see an increasing focus on "aging in place," or continuing to live at home through the golden years. As more and more seniors indicate their desire to stay home while aging, those who are caring for them are faced with the question of how to keep them there safely. When a senior is newly diagnosed with a disability, that question demands the introduction of home modifications alongside the re-evaluation of daily activities and organization. This guide will help you understand what you can do to accommodate your loved one’s disabilities.

Common Types of Disabilities for Seniors

As we age, we start to lose some of the function in our bodies. Add to this the higher risk of disease and you have an increased risk of developing a disability. Whether that disability is low vision, physical impairment or something else, the newly disabled senior must adapt in order to continue to enjoy independence. For those who love and care for newly disabled senior adults, learning more about the disability is essential so you can help them learn to adapt. Here are the most common types of disabilities seniors may deal with, and some important information about them.

Physical Disabilities

Loss of strength and mobility combined with the increased risk of injury can leave many seniors physically disabled. Below you can find some further information about common physical disabilities and their impact on seniors.Mental Disabilities

When seniors start to lose their memory or mental capabilities, they need loved ones to step in and help. Here's what you need to know about this category of disability and how it relates to seniors:Vision Loss/Blindness

Losing the ability to see is frightening for many seniors. With the onset of age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma, cataracts and diabetic retinopathy, many seniors find themselves losing their vision. Here is some information to help those newly diagnosed with vision loss:Hearing Disabilities

It's normal to lose some hearing as we age, but when that hearing loss starts to impact the way someone functions in day-to-day life, it may need to be addressed. Those newly diagnosed with hearing loss can feel overwhelmed, and the number of changes needed at home can be taxing. Here's some information to help you or your loved one cope with a new diagnosis of hearing loss:Additional Disabilities

While physical, mental, vision and hearing disabilities may be the most common, there are other disabling conditions that seniors can struggle with. Some of these include:
  • Weakened immune system, rendering seniors prone to illness
  • Respiratory concerns, making daily life and fitness difficult
  • Chronic and/or degenerative pain conditions
While these may overlap with some of the other disabilities already noted -  such as pain conditions that make mobility a problem - they can be considered separately. Here is some more information to help those seniors who are newly diagnosed with one of these:Newly Disabled

Those newly diagnosed with a disability struggle with a mourning process as they are forced to transition into their new way of life, and adapt to new limitations. 
Physically Disabled Seniors

For seniors newly diagnosed with a physical disability or those who have had a physical disability that progresses to the point that they need more intervention, changes in the home can mean the difference between ongoing independence and the need to enter an assisted living facility.
  • Put unnecessary items into storage in order to clear out space and make it easier to safely move through the living space as well as keep it clean and neat.
  • Create wheelchair maneuvering space - It's common for seniors to need wheelchair assistance. Even if your loved one still just needs a walker or cane, additional space is helpful. An average wheelchair is about 50 inches long and 32 inches wide. Most adults need 60 inches of clear floor space to make a turn, and 36 inches of hall space to maneuver. Consider modifying the home to accommodate this need, and remove doors in areas that don't require privacy.
  • Make the flooring level - for easier wheelchair maneuverability and to prevent the risk of falls, make sure that your floors are all on the same level and have no raised seams. Consider installing wedges to round out any permanent flaws in the flooring.
  • Install a wheelchair ramp - Accessibility in and out of the home is essential to independence. Install a wheelchair ramp, and make sure the slope is no more than a 1-12 ratio (12 inches in length for every 1-inch change in height).
  • Lower the kitchen - If you can remodel the kitchen to lower the counter height, and then do so, but this isn't always practical. If you can't remodel, rearrange the kitchen so the items your loved one uses every day are in the lower drawers and cabinets.
  • Consider using a moveable countertop or rolling cart to provide a surface that's within reach if you can't lower all of the countertops.
  • Install pull-out shelving and countertops - Pull-out shelving makes it easier for a disabled individual to access all areas of closets and cabinets.
  • Get accessible appliances – Make sure they have easy-to-reach controls in the front. Get side-by-side freezer and refrigerator units, so that everyone can use both parts.
  • Move heavy items lower - In the kitchen and other storage areas move heavy items to the lower shelves. This will protect your loved one from injury from dropping a heavy item.
  • Modify the bathroom - The bathroom is one area where modifications are a must. Narrow doors and small spaces can make navigating in a wheelchair nearly impossible. Consider remodeling to expand, if possible. Some ways to buy more space include adding a pedestal sink, changing to a smaller tub or shower, and widening the doorway. There must be a five-foot clearance in order to allow 360-degree wheelchair turns.
  • Install grab bars -Install grab bars in the bathroom that are strong enough to hold the individual's weight. Grab bars should be near the toilet and bathtub, at a minimum.
  • Modify the bathtub - Being able to bathe independently is critical to maintaining independence even with a physical disability. Modify the bathtub by installing a roll-in tub or shower. Use bath mats and non-slip floors to prevent slipping, and consider investing in a tub or shower chair so your loved one can sit while bathing.
  • Elevate the toilet - Most standard toilets are too low for someone in a wheelchair. Either replace it with a taller model, or purchase a toilet seat attachment that will raise its height.
  • Use easy grip handles - Easy grip handles assist those with limited dexterity in opening and closing cabinets and other doors.
  • Install a telephone in every room, in case of emergency.
For more information about organizing a home for physical disabilities, visit:Mentally Disabled Seniors 

As seniors age, they can start to struggle with mental disabilities like dementia. Sometimes these disabilities require professional help and care, but when they are minor, a few modifications at home can help protect the individual while allowing them to live independently or with family, instead of in an assisted living facility.
  • Store away sharp and glass items - Sharp and glass items can be dangerous in the hands of someone with a mental disability. Consider which tools and antiques your loved one needs, and store the rest.
  • Keep emergency contact information handy – Mount the necessary phone numbers and information in every room, including the senior’s address, phone number, and emergency contacts – with instructions! – in case they become disoriented. Consider placing a telephone in every room.
  • Check the safety devices – Make sure all smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are working. Keep signs prominent to check the batteries, with instructions and the next date to check. Additionally, make sure all fire extinguishers are ready visible and functional.
  • Use containers to organize stored food and medicine – Ensure it’s all used by its expiration date.
  • Use pill boxes to ensure medicine is taken daily– Be sure to place it in the most commonly used location – perhaps even the kitchen, and preferably next to the calendar.
  • Place a prominent calendar in a central location – Compound this with a daily ritual to change the date. ­
  • Simplify the bathroom - If your loved one becomes confused or disoriented in the bathroom, modifications can help them quickly gather themselves. Tub chairs, grab rails, non-skid surfaces and plastic doors or curtains can prevent serious injury if disorientation occurs.
  • Remove interior door locks - Remove interior door locks in your home, particularly in the bathroom and bedroom. You don't want your loved one to lock himself in a room that you can't access.
  • Move all electrical items away from sources of water - You don't want to have your loved one make a mistake and create an electrical fire. Take all electrical appliances out of the bathroom and keep them away from the kitchen sink.
  • Add night-lights - If your loved one wanders at night, make sure night lights illuminate all walking paths including entries, doorways, and stairwells.
  • Limit stimulation - Dim the lights, cover the windows to reduce sunlight and redecorate so the home isn't busy. Overstimulation can cause people with dementia to become agitated.
  • Lower the bed and install bed rails - Sometimes patients with mental concerns will have trouble staying in bed. Lower the bed to prevent a dangerous fall.
  • Install monitors - Baby monitors, including video monitors, can help you monitor your loved one in the bedroom. Use these if safety is a concern.
  • Install door alarms - Older adults with dementia or other mental concerns may be prone to wandering away from home. Exterior door alarms that alert you to this will help protect your loved one.
  • Install a bedside commode - the need to use the restroom during the night is disconcerting to those with mental concerns. A bedside commode can help protect dignity and prevent accidents.
  • Increase contrast on stairs - If the home has stairs, use paint or reflective tape to add contrast to their edges to help prevent falls. Elevation changes are difficult for those with dementia.
  • Add protections in the kitchen - For seniors who are forgetful or easily confused, the kitchen can be quite dangerous. Covering stove burners, switching to an electric stove, turning off gas to the stove and locking cabinets with dangerous items inside are important safety measures.
  • Remove choking hazards - Small, non-food items should not be stored near food, because they could be mistaken for food and then be consumed.
  • Remove access to the car - Secure the garage and hide the car keys. If possible, disable the car. Also, when driving with your loved one, use driver-controlled door locks and windows to prevent escape.
  • Invest in glare-free lighting - Glares cause individuals with dementia to be confused, and may also make it difficult for them to navigate the flooring. Use lampshades to prevent glare.
For additional information about re-organizing a senior’s home for mental disability, visit:Seniors with Visual Disabilities 

Realizing that you are losing your vision is always a frightening situation. If you or someone you love is dealing with a new diagnosis of vision loss, now is the time to make the home safer. Many forms of vision loss in seniors are progressive, so the condition may get worse.

  • Remove protruding hardware - Cabinet hardware that protrudes can injure someone with vision loss. Keep things flat against the wall and cabinet doors.
  • Replace fluorescent lighting with incandescent - It's hard to find incandescent bulbs now, but they are easier on the eyes than fluorescent. Use strong light bulbs and/or 3-way bulbs.
  • Install bright, motion-sensitive lights on exterior doors - Bright lights that turn on with motion will protect your loved one when going outdoors at night.
  • Mark thermostats ­– Use bright colors to note the most commonly used settings.
  • Add lighting wherever possible - Strip lighting under cabinets, task lighting in bathroom and dressing areas, brighter lighting in the hallway and path lighting on outdoor paths will all help protect your loved one.
  • Upsize the numerals - On remotes, telephones, thermostats and other features of the home, upgrade to devices with large numerals. This will help your loved one remain independent, even with vision loss.
  • Use contrasting colors - In areas where object recognition is important, contrasting colors can help. Different colors between walls and doors, cabinets and walls, and different types of flooring are important. Use doorknobs that contrast with the doors.
  • Remove thresholds - Someone with vision loss may not see the threshold in a doorway. Aim for low-profile transitions between rooms.
  • Keep lighting uniform in walkways - Areas like hallways need uniform lighting to help those with low vision.
  • Keep similar objects together – using containers in drawers.
  • Mark containers with prominent labels. ­– Invest in a label machine or else use a broad-tipped felt marker. Also be sure to note expiration dates prominently where appropriate.
  • Practice consistent organization - Make sure the home is organized, and avoid changing the layout of furniture or the location of important items, as this will confuse someone with a visual impairment.
  • Paint rooms different colors - Changing the colors of the rooms will help someone with low vision tell the difference between rooms more easily.
  • Reduce glare­­ – On TVs or floors, be sure to use matte surfaces to counter the reflections from sunlight or lamplight.
For more information about adapting the home for seniors with low vision or vision impairment, visit:Seniors with Hearing Disabilities

Hearing loss for seniors is rarely sudden, but if you're dealing with a new diagnosis that explains your hearing troubles or your loved one's struggles, then it may be time to do some modifications around the home. Home organization for hearing loss tend to focus on using visual cues for sounds.
  • Seal the windows - Exterior noise can make it harder for people with hearing loss to hear. Seal the window with tight weather seals to reduce noise from outside.
  • Sound absorbing materials - Using sound-absorbing materials on walls and floors to reduce background noise can also help. Consider wall coverings, drapes, carpeting and acoustical ceilings can all help.
  • Light audible alarms - Alarms, like the smoke and CO alarm, need to be connected to a visual warning system. If the individual can't hear the alarm, and there is an emergency, the results could be fatal. A flashing strobe light is the best option, as this will ensure the warning is seen no matter where the person is in the house.
  • Add vibration for alarms - Flashing lights do little to help if someone is asleep. Add vibration to the warning signal to ensure that the individual with hearing loss will awaken should an emergency occur at night.
  • Light the phone and doorbell - While not as critical as the alarms in the home, other audible signals, like the phone or the doorbell, need to be connected to a lighted signal as well. This will ensure the individual is always aware of what is happening.
  • Invest in assisted listening devices - These devices amplify sounds in the home to ensure your loved one can continue to enjoy audio entertainment. These include audio induction loops, FM systems, infrared systems and personal amplification products. They can be used with or without hearing aids.
  • Add a peephole - If the door is not already equipped with a window or peephole, add one. Seniors with hearing loss may not be able to hear someone outside their door, and a peephole will give them the ability to see who is there before opening the door to a stranger.
  • Use lighting codes to convey different types of alerts - One problem with connecting various alerts to the lighting system is that it can be confusing for a senior. Do flashing lights mean the oven is done or the doorbell rang? Use different codes, like 3 quick flashes for the doorbell and 3 long flashes for the phone, to help limit confusion.
For more information about hearing loss and home modifications, visit:Other Disabilities for Seniors 

Physical and mental disabilities and loss of sight or vision are the most common ailments older adults can struggle with, but they are not the only ones. Those who are newly disabled and diagnosed with a less common condition may still need help. Three of the other common conditions you may face include respiratory conditions, pain conditions and immune system conditions. Here are some modifications you can make for these.

Respiratory and Immune System Conditions

Respiratory and immune system conditions aren't the same, but they require similar modifications to reduce the risk of infection and respiratory irritation.
  • Minimize clutter – Having fewer items in the house reduces dust while also making it easier to clean. Consider moving items to storage.
  • Find the appropriate cleaning supplies and store them readily in their room of use  - Be sure to use delicate cleaners where needed, and always try to avoid chemicals.
  • Change filters frequently - Change the HVAC filter frequently, at least once every other month, to keep dust and mold from circulating through the home. Identify a prominent location and simple, easy-to-remember way to note the dates.
  • Invest in pest control - Pests can make respiratory problems worse. Invest in pest control, but make sure that you do not bring irritating chemicals into the home if you can avoid it. The same is true for grass and garden areas. If using pest-control outdoors, aim for chemical-free options if possible.
  • Consider installing ramps - These conditions can weaken your loved one. Even if they can navigate stairs, you may find that they are safer and more comfortable with ramps instead.
  • Condition the air - Test the humidify levels inside your home, and adjust with a humidifier and dehumidifier as needed. Air that is too dry can increase respiratory distress and infection risk, while air that is too moist can allow mold to grow and create environmental hazards.
  • Elevate the bed - Chronic respiratory conditions can cause coughing at night. Elevating the head of the bed can prevent additional coughing problems due to postnasal drip.
  • Hire professional cleaning - Consider hiring professional cleaning to ensure the home is staying clean. While not technically a home modification, cleanliness is essential to protecting those who have chronic respiratory or immune system disease.
  • Remove carpeting - Carpeting is a breeding ground for dust mites and other allergens, and it's notoriously hard to clean well. If respiratory or immune system issues are present, swapping out carpeting for hard flooring can help.
  • Install central air - If the home doesn't have central air, consider having it installed. Central air with strong filters helps remove containments and irritants from the air in the home.
  • Install fan vents - Install a bathroom fan that vents to the outdoors, and run it for at least 20 minutes after showering or bathing to prevent mold growth.
For more information about caring for someone with chronic respiratory or immune system disease, including home modifications, visit:Pain Conditions

Living with chronic pain can make daily living tasks nearly impossible. Everything from getting out of a chair to opening a cabinet can be excruciatingly painful.
  • Make door handles easier - Cabinet and doorway doors can be hard to grasp. Modify them with easy-to-grasp options, and consider installing doors that open and close fully from pressure alone.
  • Rearrange frequently used items - Place items used daily at a height that doesn't require straining or lifting. Ensure personal care and comfort items are within easy reach of your loved one's favorite place to sit.
  • Research and invest in ergonomic items­­ – Some brands (e.g. OXO) will specialize in ergonomics and/or items that are designed for those with a particular affliction.
  • Modify the bathroom - Many of the modifications for mobility, such as a raised toilet seat and grab bars, can assist seniors with chronic pain issues. Don't forget the shower seat.
  • Consider lift chairs - If getting up and down from a seated position contributes to pain, a lift chair can help.
  • Upgrade to a better mattress - A mattress that is firm can help provide support to the body while the person sleeps, and make it easier to get out of bed in the morning as well.
  • Invest in adaptive personal care items - Everything from spoons to hairbrushes now has an adaptive option. Adaptive personal care items give your loved one the ability to take care of daily living tasks without undue pain.
For additional information about helping someone living with chronic pain, visit:For additional resources in adapting and organizing the home to the needs of disabled seniors, including those with a new disability diagnosis, visit: