By BARBARA?E. RILEY, Ohio Department of Aging Director
Will you be traveling to visit a family member on Mother’s Day? Is your mother coming to visit? Or will your family have to gather someplace else because an older family member is not able to climb the steps to your house?
One Dayton couple cannot visit her mother who lives in an older home. The stairs at every entrance and the bathroom that is not wheelchair accessible make it very difficult for her husband, who uses a wheelchair, to visit. Another couple must live apart. She is in a nursing facility while her husband continues to live in their apartment that is no longer accessible to her. Mother’s Day and other holidays are spent in the nursing home.
Not only do structural barriers in homes prevent older adults and people with disabilities from aging in place in their own homes, they also make it difficult for people who need basic accessibility to visit family and friends, leading them to become socially isolated. Even if none of your family or friends currently has a disability, that can, and probably will, change.
The elderly population of the United States is large and growing rapidly. Since disability rates increase with age, this will bring substantial increases in the number of people with disabilities. Studies estimate that more than one in five (21 percent) of households will have at least one disabled resident in 2050. According to the Journal of the American Planning Association, 91 percent of newly built single family homes will have a resident or visitor with physical limitations or disabilities during the home’s useful life. Many houses have steps at all entrances, narrow doorways, long and narrow hallways and lack an accessible bathroom on the main floor, features that can make it difficult for some people to get into or move around a home.
So, there is a new initiative to make homes more “visitable.” Visitability means a home is designed so that it can be lived in or visited by people who have trouble with steps or who use wheelchairs or walkers. A house is visitable when it has:
∫ At least one outside entrance with no steps;
∫ Doors with at least 32 inches of clear passage space; and
∫ At least one bathroom on the main floor that you can access in a wheelchair.
The outside entrance with no steps does not have to be the front door. It can be the entrance from the attached garage. This can benefit people using baby strollers, coolers on wheels or appliance delivery men, as well as anyone with a disability. And, we are not necessarily talking about ramps. Ramps are good for retrofitting older homes, but with advance planning, proper design and grading, ramps are rarely necessary in new construction.
Visitability accommodates people of all sizes, ages and abilities, and allows families to age in place. A home designed and built with visitability features is less likely to need modifications to accommodate unexpected injuries and illnesses, as well as the slow-onset decreases in mobility that may come with age.
Designing for visitability when building a new home is cheaper than trying to remodel an existing home to meet the needs of an older owner. For example, the average cost nationally of including one zero-step entrance when building a new home is $150. Estimates of the average cost to Ohio taxpayers to add a ramp to an existing home ranges from $2,800 to $5,000. Ohioans spend more than $5 million annually in state and federal Medicaid funds, state MRDD capital funds and Ohio Housing Trust Funds to modify entrances and bathrooms in existing homes for people with disabilities. That figure does not include the costs incurred by families or funds from other sources such as the Ohio Rehabilitative Services Commission or charitable organizations.
Currently in Ohio, visitability is only considered in new homes when a buyer demands these features prior to the construction of the home or if the builder receives financing from the Ohio Housing Finance Agency, which requires visitability. A majority of homes that are constructed today do not include visitability as a basic feature and would require costly retrofits to become visitable. While Ohio has enacted a Residential Building Code, which applies a uniform building standard to all single family homes, visitability features are not included.
The Ohio Visitability Strategy Group, made up of state agencies, departments and commissions, was created to examine ways to promote visitability in Ohio. You can find more information about visitability at Visitability Ohio or Concrete Change.
So, where will your family celebrate, or be able to celebrate, Mothers Day? Not everyone has the resources to build new with visitability in mind. What you can do is look around your current home to identify any barriers, see what can be rectified easily and what would require more effort, then prioritize based on your family’s needs. With some effort, you can help family and friends with disabilities feel welcome and able to visit, at the same time ensuring that your home will be comfortable and livable in the future.