Aging In Place

3/7/2022 | By Megan Mullen

Strategic at-home modifications for Parkinson’s disease (PD) help PD patients maintain safety and independence, through household, clothing, dining, and communications adaptations.

Any new, serious health diagnosis can be frightening. Whether for yourself or a loved one, you want to know causes, symptoms, and treatments. You want to know how the condition will affect the future. And you want to know what you can do to combat or mitigate the disease.

Those new to a Parkinson’s disease diagnosis – for themselves or a loved one – may recognize the disease only from celebrities such as Michael J. Fox, Muhammad Ali, and Alan Alda. That’s not surprising, since many everyday people with the condition don’t make it public; they keep their diagnosis mainly among family, friends, and health care providers. But knowledge is power, so learning about Parkinson’s and taking steps to manage it can empower the patient and comfort their loved ones.

For Parkinson’s patients and their families, combating the disease can take two forms.

First, their medical team can help them determine positive steps to treat the disease, depending upon the individual’s symptoms.

Second, they can take steps that will bolster the patient’s safety, including at-home modifications for Parkinson’s as well as clothing and dining adaptations.

Why the need for home modifications for Parkinson’s patients?

Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder. PD is most known for its effect on movement-related (motor) symptoms, including

  • Tremors – trembling of the arms, legs, hands, jaw, or head
  • Slowing and stiffening movements
  • Cramping
  • Changes in walking gait and movement
  • Freezing – inability to move
  • Dyskinesia – involuntary or erratic movements of the face, arms, legs, or body
  • Postural instability, i.e., trouble with balance and falls (typically later in the disease progression)

Parkinson’s symptoms may also reflect non-motor problems, such as apathy, depression, constipation, sleep behavior disorders, loss of the sense of smell, and cognitive impairment.

While a medical team can use medications, physical therapy, exercise, and other treatments to manage the disease, symptoms that continue to manifest can make life more challenging, and even more dangerous. Home modifications for Parkinson’s can mitigate these issues.

Suggested at-home modifications for Parkinson’s

Consider the motor symptoms of Parkinson’s and how those affect tasks around the house.

Tremors increase the difficulty of grasping an item, the challenge of manipulating it, and the likelihood of dropping it.
Rigidity, changes in walking gait and movement, freezing, and postural instability increase the chances of tripping and falling and thus of injury

Most of the same home adaptations that work for other physical challenges can be useful for PD. After an accident left her paralyzed from the waist down, Rosemarie Rossetti studied the modifications that can make a home more livable. Her recommendations, as described to Boomer Magazine, include:

  • Door thresholds should be one-half inch or less, and exterior and interior doors 36 inches wide.
  • Elevators or stair lifts may be necessary for multiple-story homes.
  • Hardwood, tile, composite materials, and linoleum are easier to navigate with walkers and wheelchairs.
  • Avoid throw rugs, which can be tripping hazards.
  • Natural and artificial lighting increases safety for all. Use night lights and/or motion-activated lights.
  • Sound-activated intercom systems enhance everyday and emergency communications.
  • Grab bars should be accessible to toilets and showers.
  • Handrails are a necessity on stairs but could also be lifesavers in hallways.
  • Curbless showers and shower chairs and benches make independent bathing possible for longer.
  • Put rubber bands around shampoo and other toiletries so they’re easier to grip when wet.

Clothing adaptations

Getting dressed can be challenging to many people as they age, experiencing balance problems, arthritis, which affects fine motor coordination and flexibility, etc. Parkinson’s disease presents additional obstacles. Tremors and dyskinesia can affect the dressing process.

Best adaptations for successful dressing include:

  • Take your time – hurrying can lead to stress, which can exacerbate symptoms.
  • Wait until mobility is at its best, such as when your medications are fully engaged.
  • Do simple exercises and stretches to loosen up beforehand.
  • Sit on a sturdy, supportive chair, for convenience and safety.
  • Use assistive devices such as buttonhooks, a dressing stick, and a long-handled shoehorn.
  • Choose clothing that doesn’t demand fine-motor skills. Today’s adaptive clothing and footwear are more innovative than ever. For example, “athleisure” clothing is made with stretchy fabrics. Pullover tops and elastic-wait pants eliminate the need to bother with buttons and zippers.
  • Wear slip-on shoes or ones using Velcro closures.
  • For nighttime wear, get silk pajamas (and silk sheets). Not only do they feel great, they make getting in and out of bed easier.

Dining modifications

PD patients can face challenges in holding utensils and in getting food from a plate or bowl to the mouth. However, large-handled utensils, rocker knives, meal lifters, and other dining aids can help.

When preparing meals for Parkinson’s patients who have difficulty swallowing, opt for softer foods – like eggs, fruits, and baked or broiled fish. Adding gravy or sauce can make swallowing food a bit easier, too.

These pointers can help you plan an enjoyable experience at a restaurant:

  • Find a dining establishment willing to make accommodations.
  • Take your own adaptive eating utensils.
  • Check the menu ahead of time to ensure it meets any dietary needs.

Communication systems and technology

Not long ago, people with Parkinson’s and similar conditions often lost the ability to communicate clearly through speech. Note-writing helped, but insufficient muscle control in the hands can make that difficult, too. Today, we are fortunate to have more sophisticated communication technologies.

Contemporary technologies can assist those who are facing challenges with speaking and writing as well as enhance their safety. Consider:

  • Digital technologies like computer tablets
  • Larger keyboards make easy adaptations for desktop computers
  • Communication (or language) board devices (digital or non-digital) that help people with limited speech ability express themselves by choosing images that represent words
  • TTY and TTY-based telephone relay services for those with impaired speech, enabling them to place phone calls from anywhere in the U.S. by dialing 711 for non-emergency calls and 911 for emergencies
  • A smart watch that enables communication (and can also set reminders for medications and send alerts in case of falls or other medical emergencies)
  • Smart speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Nest provide an easy home modification for Parkinson’s patients – or anyone – that offers safety measures as well as entertainment.

While there is still no way to prevent or cure the disease, simple home modifications for Parkinson’s can help maintain safety and independence.

Megan Mullen

Megan Mullen is a freelance writer, librarian, and former college professor. Senior life is one of her niches (and a personal interest). Megan enjoys using her writing and research skills to create well-crafted web content and other publications.