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  • Writer's picturePat Browne

Can our multi-level homes be made accessible?

Finding solutions for independence.

A recent survey by March of Dimes Canada has found that 78% of Canadians want to age in place and stay in their homes. Yet only 26% think that they will be able to*. That’s a major gap and that’s the average, not specific to a four-storey townhouse.

So, if we want to stay in our homes, how do we accommodate 42 stairs (that’s the number top to bottom – Joe has counted). The March of Dimes Canada study in collaboration with Caregiver Omnimedia was designed to better understand the complex challenges faced by aging Canadians and people living with disabilities as they contend with major life decisions about their living environment. The research examined the degree to which Canadians (both older adults and those with disabilities), consider home modifications to be a solution to remaining independent in their homes.

The stairs, of course, are the first thought for needed modifications. They are, however, not the full picture. Modifications can range from installing assistive devices like additional railings (in our case we may need to address our outdoor stairs – both back and front), lift devices (stairlifts of which there are many different options), to shower modification (removing baths and installing barrier free or level access showers or simply adding grab bars), and more.

For stairlifts, we are lucky. Most of the stairs in the larger townhomes are straight which makes it easier to install stairlifts. Be aware that stairlifts require the person using the lift be able to transfer to the seat. Stairlifts can be rented or purchased.

Some specifics that people ask are:

Q: Do stairlifts require special electrical accommodations?

A: No. Stairlifts plug into a standard electrical outlet. You may need to have an outlet installed close to the docking station.

Q: Will the stairlift require construction or damage my staircase or walls?

A: No. Standard stairlifts fits quickly to the stairs, not the wall. After removal, the only evidence a stairlift had been installed will be small holes where the lift was bolted to the staircase – these are easily filled leaving no discernable mark.

Q: Are there stairlifts for curved staircases?

A: Yes! For curved stairlifts, a customized option can be created. For all stairs, a stairlift can be customized to suit any configuration. There will, however, be additional charges.

Q: Can I rent a stairlift?

A: Yes, straight stairlifts are available to rent.

“For anyone that cannot use a stairlift safely (unable to transfer to the seat or potentially low vision or dementia) then a vertical platform lift may be a better option,” says Sandy Faugh, a registered architectural technologist who specializes in helping people create accessible homes. “Before committing to any form of lift device, you really need to do a full assessment of the need. If someone has a progressive condition, then a stairlift may work now, but not in a few months/years. Anyone with dementia or who has vision challenges, then a stairlift may not work. Anyone who cannot transfer to the seat of a stairlift, will probably need another solution and there are many solutions. It’s my job to ensure that accessible design and universal design equals good design." To reach Sandy please visit**

What else do you need to consider?

If you’ve ever had to consider the challenges of accessibility, you’ll know there are a myriad of things you’ll need to consider. One of the first things is to set up a safety check for the home. The CMHC has developed information sources that will help with ideas, costs, professional help etc.*** ( ).

Condos are usually thought of as easier for accessibility, but they too can have some challenges. To reduce risk of an accident or fall, include non-slip floor surfaces throughout the house (that can mean removing area rugs or installing non-slip surfaces to stairs); in the bathroom add grab bars and perhaps use products that can be applied to shower floors to ensure a non-slip surface; change door knobs to lever handles (this can apply to tap handles as well); if a walker is required, then make sure you remove excess furnishing to allow for a clear path throughout the home.

Accessible living requirements.

When someone is using a wheelchair or fully dependent on a walker, then we have to address full accessibility. In this case we may need to look for solutions on the lower levels of the house. Putting a bedroom with handicap assisted bathing and even transfer options will need to be considered. In the larger townhomes, ground-floor access is through the garage. The full basement area does have space for a bathroom and bedroom suite, just remember legal requirements for access and egress when planning.

A second option requires stairlifts on both the basement to ground floor and first floor to second floor will mean creating an accessible bedroom with bathroom on the second floor. Again, the good news with our homes is that all internal walls are not load bearing. Just be careful when making your plans as walls and bulkheads contain wiring and/or ducting.

Enjoy spending time with family and in our community without worrying about accessibility issues. Even four-story townhouses can be adapted to your needs.

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