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The Right Chair
How One Small Item Can Make a Big Difference
This story was written by the mother of a friend and colleague, Erica Solway. Erica is the Deputy Director of the National Poll on Healthy Aging. Recently, Erica told me that her dad had suffered a stroke and about how difficult it was for her family to find resources for adapting her parents’ beautiful home to support him. Her mom, Nancy Solway, recounts how a humble chair played an important role in that process.
In December 2022, my husband experienced a stroke at home. He’s 71 and in relatively good health, so it came as a complete shock to both of us. I was totally unprepared and apprehensive about what the future would hold. We spent seven agonizing weeks in the hospital and faced many major ups and downs.
During his two-week stay in the ICU, I lost many hours of sleep. I truly didn’t breathe again until he was transferred to the hospital rehab program to begin the arduous task of recovery. The average patient spends 10 days to two weeks in inpatient rehab, but it took another five long weeks before he finally was well enough to be discharged. The silver lining was that it gave us some time to assess his needs and prepare. I shifted into overdrive, got my act together, and began preparations for his return home.
I became a cheerleader at his bedside and assistant coach in the rehab gym, all while trying to understand a lot of new medical information and stay on top of the household and financial responsibilities that were piling up. At the same time, I tried to ready our house for a safe and comfortable return to what would become our new normal. I was very excited at the thought of having him home, but I knew we'd need to make a lot of changes to make a safe return possible.
We love our home. It's unique and architecturally interesting but not barrier free. When we bought it 15 years ago, living in it while experiencing physical limitations had not crossed our minds.
On the final day of rehab before discharge, I asked my husband’s physical therapist what to do if he should fall at home. The physical therapist instructed me to get a sturdy armchair that was substantial yet easy to carry (like a chair you would find in a doctor’s office waiting room). By using a similar chair in the hospital, he taught us what to do: how to crawl up instead of struggling together and risking that one or both of us got hurt in the process. I looked around my house but didn’t have anything suitable. After checking with friends to see if anyone had one to borrow, my daughter found one at the furniture disposition center at the university near her home. It was listed for $5.00 and in fair condition, but I figured it was worth a try.
It turns out it was the best $5.00 I’ve ever spent. For our purposes, it was perfect: sturdy yet light to carry, comfortable, and a good fit with our home decor. In fact, the chair has been a key part of his return home. It’s a comfortable and practical dining chair when used with temporary furniture sliders underneath the legs, so he can be pushed closer to the dining table. It's an exercise chair during in-home physical and occupational therapy. It's a welcome resting spot when navigating through the house. It was the chair my husband sat in for his first haircut after returning home, which gave him a huge psychological boost. And unfortunately, it was the lifesaver the physical therapist said it would be when he did have a fall in the bathroom a couple weeks after returning home—thank goodness we knew what to do.
As we adjust to our new reality and to my new role as caregiver, I've learned lots of tips and tricks to make life easier. I've begun to see things through my husband’s eyes and that has given me new clarity and perspective on how to adapt. I was relieved to find that some solutions to our unimaginable challenges were not as expensive, complex, or hard to access as we might previously have expected. I wanted my husband to be safe at home and for both of us to truly feel at home, too. The chair has been a huge part of achieving that goal.
REHAB AT HOME
Everybody’s needs for rehab at home after a stroke are different but typically it is about supporting somebody in relearning daily activities and keeping them safe in doing so. From this story we have learned that the right chair can play a key role. A chair that is light, yet sturdy, has a padded seat for comfort and arm rests for support. In addition it is about creating an age-friendly environment which should be integrated into every home design since we all need forever homes, sooner or later.
Stairs: Wherever you have level differences in your home, mark them clearly. make steps visible with contrasting striping, put wireless LED lights along the stairways to light individual steps.
Shower curb: Put contrasting safety strips on shower curbs.
Single steps: Single steps are especially tricky to negotiate - make sure they are visually apparent.
Clear walkways: Clear floor spaces and plenty of space to move around with nothing to trip over.
Night lights: Night lights to provide illumination when room lights are turned off.
Horizontal safety bar: Install a safety bar along the shower wall. Make it as long as possible to provide flexibility.
Transfer Chair: Use a transfer chair to slide over into the bathtub without having to get up.
Bathtub Grip: A clamp-on- bathtub grip makes getting in and out of the bathtub easier. Example
Handrails: Put handrails on both sides of a stairway.
Handshower: Replace a shower head with a handshower with a longer hose so one can take a shower while sitting on a shower chair in the tub. Look for a handshower with a hand hold. Example.
Lever door handles instead of knobs.
Toilet seats with handles: These seats make the toilet higher and also have handles for support. How and if this works depends on the height of your toilet and the size of the person. Example.
Some other thoughts:
When choosing an item, look for function as well as aesthetic and consider that these products will make an impact on how the person feels who uses them. This is especially true for items in the bathroom.