Tips for Making Your Home More Accessible When You Have MS
There’s no place like home—and when you have multiple sclerosis (MS), you may want to take extra measures to make your home as safe and comfortable as possible.
The complications of MS can sometimes make getting around the house a challenge. “There can be a number of impairments that people have from MS that can affect their mobility,” says Barbara Giesser, M.D., a board-certified neurologist and MS specialist at Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. These challenges can include motor impairment due to muscle weakness or spasticity.
There can also be sensory impairment: If you have numbness or loss of sensation in your feet, you may have trouble with balance. Cognitive issues can also interfere with mobility, as can visual impairments if you can't see well where you're going in your home.
In addition, fatigue is a common issue for people with MS. "Even if you don't have any of these other factors, certainly being tired can interfere with your mobility," Giesser says.
Here are three things to consider doing to help you conserve energy and adapt your home to fit your needs.
Work with a Rehab Specialist to Assess Your Space
Before taking on any MS home modifications by yourself, it’s a good idea to ask your doctor for a referral to an occupational therapist (OT) or physical therapist (PT) who can come to your home for an assessment.
“Sometimes, it's helpful to have a visit from an occupational and/or physical therapist who can look at your home and say, ‘Gee, this is a really dimly lit portion of your home. It might make it safer if you put a nightlight in,’ or, ‘Boy, you've got all these throw rugs on the floor, and throw rugs can be really slippery,” Giesser says.
One important area to focus on is the bathroom, which can be dangerous, since it’s easy to slip and fall when bathing, showering, or walking on a wet surface.
“You can add grab bars in the shower and take advantage of other equipment such as raised toilet seats, shower chairs, and tub benches,” says Brittany Ferri, Ph.D., an occupational therapist and adviser at Medical Solutions BCN in Rochester, New York. If you just need a few simple modifications like grab bars, a handyman should be able to install them.
Tailor Your Home’s Features
For some people with MS, using adaptive equipment like canes, walkers, and rollators (mobility aids that are similar to walkers and have four wheeled legs and often a seat) can help them get around with less risk of falling, says Ferri—but your home may require some structural modifications to make navigating it with these aids easier. The Centers for Independent Living can connect you to local funds and resources in your state to help defray the cost of these modifications, which might include:
- Replacing carpet with hardwood floors
- Lowering the height of counters, light switches, and thermostats so they’re reachable while seated
- Installing a walk-in (or roll-in) shower
- Widening doorways
- Installing a wheelchair ramp
For these types of MS home modifications, you’ll generally want to find a reputable, specialized contractor. Your doctor or an OT may be able to refer you to a local vendor who is a certified rehab technology supplier (CRTS), which means they’ve passed an exam and are held to certain standards and policies around adaptive equipment.
If you’re a renter, you have the right to add MS accessibility features to the home you’re renting, provided they are reasonable accomodations.
Use Tools and Technology to Save Your Energy
Nowadays, smart home technology tools can help you get around your home without wearing yourself out, Ferri says. Options to help you get things done can include:
- Smart doorbells with intercoms that allow you to see and speak to who’s at your door without getting up
- Video calling devices that help you stay connected wherever you are
- Motion sensor lighting, so you don’t have to walk over to a light switch
- Voice-activated apps, including ones that can control your lights, TV, and other devices, or ones that can set reminders in cases of fatigue-related brain fog
- Wearable call buttons, which are helpful for those who are especially prone to falling
When starting to use certain devices, working with an OT or PT can be especially helpful if you have cognitive concerns that make it difficult to learn how to use new equipment.
The specialist can also suggest techniques to use at home to help you conserve your energy so you don’t get fatigued as quickly, as well as adaptive kitchen tools to make meal prep easier. They can also teach you specific exercises to make mobility safer and more efficient so you can get around the house with greater ease.
Good home modifications for MS come down to removing obstacles (like throw rugs), making physical modifications (like installing grab bars), and using energy conservation strategies (like making one trip to your kitchen instead of three). "MS can produce problems with everyday activities,” Giesser says, “and there are ways of getting around that.”
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