Seniors with disabilities who live alone show faster declines in brain function than those who live with others, according to Washington University research.
But there’s an encouraging finding: Seniors who live in homes with handicap-accessible features stay mentally sharp longer.
More than 12 million seniors in the U.S. live alone. Many are opting to age in their homes, rather than move into nursing facilities. But most homes in the U.S. lack features that make them accessible for disabled people.
Less than 4% of U.S. housing stock has the three most important accessibility features: single-floor living, entrances without steps, and extra-wide hallways and doorways that can accommodate wheelchairs.
For Sojung Park, an assistant professor at Washington University’s Brown School of Social Work, the issue hits unnervingly close to home.
“I’ve tried to persuade my own aging parents, ‘Do something, please!’” said Park, a study co-author. “‘When you get to your mid-90s and your house isn’t a supportive living space, you won’t be healthy physically or psychologically.’”
Researchers have long known that more handicap-accessible spaces can improve seniors’ physical health — by reducing their risk of falls, for instance.
But Park wondered whether home modifications, like grab bars and wheelchair ramps, might also benefit seniors’ brain function.
To investigate, her team analyzed 12 years of data from the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study, focusing on about 6,000 U.S. adults over the age of 65 who had at least one physical impairment.
More than 70% lived in homes without any accessibility features.
However, those who lived in homes with at least one accessible feature — even something as simple as grab bars in the shower — were less likely to show declining brain function and memory loss.
“For this group of people, their home environment has a direct effect on their mental health,” Park said. “Home modifications can make a whole lot of difference for an aging individual, particularly if they live alone.”
She is quick to acknowledge that more involved projects, such as widening doorways or installing ramps, can be expensive. Not everyone can afford to make these changes, she said.
“It’s really important to consider what can be done for those with limited financial resources,” Park said. “This is a wake-up call for us as individuals and for society as a whole."
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