Rob Geller headshot
Rob Geller

Safety and falls prevention are a top priority when designing senior living communities.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 36 million falls are reported among older adults each year, resulting in more than 32,000 deaths. In fact, falls are the No. 1 cause of accidental deaths in seniors — more than every other cause combined.

Ensuring accessibility in building design is not just about meeting minimum requirements of the building codes such as the Americans with Disabilities Act. By adopting a universal design approach, architects and developers contribute to a more inclusive environment, promoting autonomy to move freely without restrictions as well as ensuring that older adults are at ease in their environment.

ADA compliance: A starting point

It’s one thing to ensure that a project meets minimum building code or ADA requirements. It’s another to approach design holistically to improve accessibility wherever possible. With this latter approach, architects and developers can go the extra mile by creating spaces that support mobility and access for seniors.

Even if not mandated by building code, providing additional layers of support ensures maximum usability and helps prevent falls. For example, though ADA regulations may not require handrails along hallways, senior living communities can install them for added support. The goal for these spaces is to encourage ease of use through simple and intuitive design that minimizes physical effort and reduces hazards. By incorporating accessible design elements, older adults feel safe and encouraged to move freely, allowing for more meaningful participation and socialization in the community.

Providing 3 points of contact

The golden rule when it comes to falls prevention is to always maintain three points of contact. This means that if someone has two feet on the ground, then he or she should have at least one hand as a point of contact. If the individual only has one foot on the ground, then two hands should be making contact for support. When the person is going up a staircase or ramp, it’s encouraged that the person be provided railing on both sides to maintain the three points of contact.

It’s also important to ensure proper stability. The key is to provide a round handrail that allows a “power grip” — the individual must be able to wrap his or her entire hand around the railing instead of just the fingers.

The power grip is five times stronger than the “pinch grip” often required on decorative stair railings. Think of it this way: Imagine trying to swing a hammer by holding it in your fingertips. Additionally, strength and durability of the support are crucial. The structure should be able to withstand a sudden pull and not come out of the wall when grabbed with force.

Design solutions for falls prevention

Designing solutions for senior living spaces requires a range of measures to improve mobility and minimize fall risks.

Eliminating tripping hazards creates a more accessible space. Avoid slippery floors and carpets, which can cause falls. Instead, use non-slip or anti-skid surfaces such as tile with matte or rubberized finishes. Install curbless showers and avoid raised thresholds — even a half inch off the ground can cause tripping. If stairs are wooden, then it’s essential to apply non-slip treads on the steps. Creating clear, wide paths throughout a space, coupled with ample lighting, enhances visibility and reduces the likelihood of falls.

For bathrooms that are prone to slippery surfaces, providing a seat in the shower helps residents feel safe when showering independently. Adding grab bars also is highly recommended, to prevent falls and allow users to safely navigate onto the toilet or into the bathtub. For ramps or stairwells, it is advised to install handrails on both sides and to ensure that they are continuous, even around turns, to always maintain continuous, three-point contact.

Designing senior living communities with a focus on safety and fall prevention requires more than just meeting minimum code requirements. By adopting a holistic design approach, architects and designers can create environments that prioritize mobility, accessibility, and independence for older adults. When you implement this approach, you empower older adults to lead fulfilling lives with enhanced peace of mind and overall well-being.

Rob Geller is vice president of business development at Promenaid Handrails.

The opinions expressed in each McKnight’s Senior Living marketplace column are those of the author and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Senior Living.

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