Make your kitchen safer for the long-term

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 17, 2010 

Chopping, boiling and serving can be daunting words for someone limited by arthritis, failing eyesight, or muscles weakened by a stroke or the natural process of aging.

But simple changes in the kitchen can adjust for the decreased strength, vision and balance that often comes from aging or illness, say local occupational therapists.

And those changes can help preserve the overall health of seniors who are more likely to cook healthfully if they cook for themselves. Staying independent in the kitchen has a long list of other benefits, too.

"People want to prepare the meals they like to eat," says Ken Eastham, an occupational therapist at St. Joseph hospital. "Cooking is good exercise, and it's a leisure task that can help people psychologically, especially if they invite friends over to eat."

Here are some suggestions for making your kitchen both well-used and safe.

SIMPLE STEPS

An easy change is to use lighter-weight pots and pans and to use less water when boiling food. The reduced weight helps protect the cook's vulnerable joints, says Michelle Moulds, an occupational therapist at St. Joseph hospital.

People should also pace themselves in the kitchen, she says. Some illnesses, such as multiple sclerosis, leave people with the potential to be overheated in a hot kitchen. And certain diseases, such as diabetes, leave people with decreased nerve sensitivity, leaving them more vulnerable to burns, a consideration when deciding how and what to cook, Moulds says.

Other easy changes include buying products such as flour in smaller, lighter packages, and having the butcher trim your meat, something most grocery-store meat-department employees will do for free.

Moulds says a wheeled cart can help move items from the kitchen to serving areas, and move heavy pots from one part of the kitchen to another.

USEFUL GADGETS

A simple check of the Internet shows there's a world of modified gadgets for all kinds of concerns in the kitchen. The Arthritis Foundation website even makes recommendations for "Ease of Use" items.

Moulds says a first stop is OXO's Good Grips, whose products can be found in department stores. Good Grips designs have built-up, rubbery handles that are easy to grip for people with weakened joints, and that stay steady in the hand for added safety.

For more specialized products, catalogs such as Sammons Preston offer products like cutting boards with suction cups or rubber foam on the bottom to hold them in place, and offset knives that require less leverage. Rocker knives, shaped like a crescent, can also help make cutting safer.

Electric jar and can openers can save the time and frustration for the kitchen's most common tasks.

People with memory problems can benefit from items like electric teakettles that automatically turn off. Some electric kettles come on a stand that helps pour the boiling water safely. They can be found in catalogs such as Maxi Aids.

APPLIANCE ADVICE

Appliances - the workhorses of the kitchen - can ease the task of cooking with a few key changes, says Thea Stephens, a certified aging-in-place specialist with Bellingham design firm Domistyle.

Dishwashers in 42-inch-high kitchen islands can be elevated several inches, for less bending and reaching, she says. And refrigerators that have bottom freezers with pullout drawers means the upper portion, which is more frequently used, opens at eye-level.

Knobs on the front of an oven, rather than above the burners, are easier to reach, and also prevent loose sleeves from catching on burners or dipping into your pot of soup, Moulds says.

Stephens says counter-depth refrigerators are a good choice. They sit flush against cabinets, so they don't pose a hazard for wheelchairs and walkers, and they're shallower, so there's less of a reach for items in the farthest corners of the fridge.

LIGHT TO COOK BY

"A person in their 70s needs twice as much lighting as someone in their 30s," Stephens says.

Recessed can-lighting is the easiest way to add new lighting to a kitchen, and task lighting can be installed under countertops to add another layer of lighting, so prep work is easily viewed.

With existing lighting, Stephens says people should use the highest wattage bulbs allowed in each fixture.

She also suggests using a home designer, to ensure additional lighting installed in the kitchen is properly placed. Stephens says she has been in a number of homes where the lighting is simply directed at the cabinets, not at the countertops, where it is needed.

And decorative lighting over bars or islands adds attractive and functional light for a main work area in the kitchen, she says.

TAKE A SEAT

Sitting down while cutting vegetables and mixing food may be the best way to prevent falls and ensure you've got that knife secure.

Moulds cautions against stools with swivel seats or chairs with wheels, because they can send you flying across the kitchen when you need something quickly to brace against.

A stool can be helpful in front of the stove when you need to keep on eye on long-cooking foods or items like oatmeal that need to be stirred constantly.

You can even buy a mirror that can be affixed above the stove to show what's going on in the pot, if the cook can't peer over to check.

Moulds adds that in many cases, older adults should wear footwear or rubber-treaded socks in the kitchen to help prevent falls.

"Even bare feet are better than socks," she says.

FULL REMODEL

Kitchens rarely undergo full remodels more than every 15 years. So if you're a homeowner expecting to stay in a home for the rest of your life, consider your senior years when redesigning your kitchen.

Designer Stephens says the components of aging-in-place design can be incorporated into any kitchen without the brushed-metal, institutional look of a hospital.

"There are ways to design all of this and have it look like anyone else's kitchen," she says.

For example, wider lanes between cabinets - five feet instead of four feet - leave room for a walker or wheelchair. And touchless faucets or lever faucets, cabinets with large drawers for pots, and a clear, functional kitchen design can all make cooking easier, she says, no matter the age or the health of the cook.

Ericka Pizzillo Cohen is an Ohio freelance writer and former reporter for The Bellingham Herald.

Reach DEAN KAHN at dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2291.

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