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Making Home Improvements Count: Six Steps to Safe and Easy Homes for Older People

In 2008, Thomas Pocklington Trust launched a groundbreaking publication called "Housing for People with Sight Loss--A Design Guide". It was the first guidance to use research among people with vision impairments to influence design and was aimed primarily at architects and designers. Now Pocklington, in conjunction with the Wilberforce Trust, has released "Housing for People with Sight Loss--A Practical Guide to Improving Existing Homes", which suggests ways to make homes safe and easy to live in-quickly, at low cost and without upheaval. The guide lists simple measures in a series of checklists, so that everyone involved in adaptations, refurbishments or basic maintenance of properties can note priorities and tick them off when they have been carried out. Underpinning the guide is research among people living with sight loss, as well as managers and support staff working in both general and specialist housing. Since most of the 13 million people in the United Kingdom who are aged over 60 will have some degree of sight loss, almost all housing schemes could benefit from making these changes.

1. Involve People. People know what needs to change in their homes but not how to change it. Their input is vital if they are to enjoy the home they live in. Their priorities may be different from those of housing, support and care staff, and taking them into account can avoid costly mistakes. The most important way to involve people is to demonstrate that their views are taken seriously and to provide clear information on what can be done, why, and what will happen. Each individual needs to have information provided in their preferred format--large print, electronic files, audio, DAISY or braille.

Support staff needs to help people think about their needs and express their views. To do this, they need to know: What is the impact of sight loss? How can homes be improved to deal with it? Where are there opportunities (such as maintenance or refurbishment plans) to make these improvements? How can they help people to consider the changes and make their views known?

Contractors also play a major role. Whether they are working in people's homes or in areas shared by many occupants, they need to understand the impact of sight loss and appreciate the importance of people's views, priorities and preferences about their homes.

2. Improve Lighting. Lighting can dramatically improve people's vision and should be adjustable, like with dimmer switches. "Task lighting" helps to focus on specific activities. Lighting inside cupboards and wardrobes makes finding things easier.

3. Colour and Contrast. Choose paint colours that reflect light. Use contrasting shades of colour to highlight the position of objects. Contrast colour strips used on the edges of doors, bins, appliances and stairs will show where these are and highlight potential hazards. Contrasting handles and knobs on doors and appliances, and on grab rails or equipment, make it easier to locate and use them.

4. Avoid Clutter. Plenty of space and logical layout for routes, furniture and equipment make it easier to move around. Accessible storage space is essential. Pathways should not be overhung by plants or trees or obstructed by garden furniture.

5. Avoid Glare. Use non-reflective materials, such as matt tiles and flooring, especially in bathrooms and kitchens. Use lampshades and vertical blinds to prevent glare from lights and windows.

6. Appliances. Controls should be clear and, where possible, tactile or audible. Put simple tactile stickers on equipment, from cookers to kettles.

Entrances, Halls and Stairways. Change door handles to a lever type with an inward curve at the end and in a colour that contrasts with the door. Fit a textured surface or coloured strip in the middle of stairs and steps. Fix a floor indicator at the top and bottom of stairs, and in shared accommodation outside lifts. This can be as simple as placing drawing pins to the wall to denote the floor number. Fix letter cages on the backs of front doors.

Kitchens, Utilities and Laundry Areas. People who like to cook may want better cooker controls; others may want better lighting in cupboards. Reduce the risk of bumping into cupboard doors by removing them to create open shelves or add a colour paint or tape strip to the leading edge. Install shaded lighting immediately above work areas.

Living and Dining Areas. Clear and logical layouts make movement safer and allow easy access to windows, switches and controls. Position furniture to make best use of light and space and to make easy routes in and through the area. Install vertical blinds. Keep windows clean and clear of obstructions.

Bedrooms. Ease of moving around is especially important and different uses of the room might require different lighting or furnishings. Position furniture to make best use of light and space to make getting in and out of bed easy, and provide clear routes in and through the room. Change lampshades, light fittings and bulbs to make the best use of light and reduce glare. Ensure that switches and electrical sockets are not obstructed by furniture or curtains.

Bathrooms. Fit a magnifying mirror, a toilet seat in a contrasting colour, and/or taps that are easy to use and are clearly marked for hot and cold.

"Housing for People with Sight Loss: A Practical Guide to Improving Existing Homes" is available from http://www.pocklington-trust.org.uk (research).

Adapted from NB, the Sight Loss and Eye Health Magazine, Issue 45, August 2009.