Best Flooring in Homes with Elderly Occupants

by Bruce Montgomery Ph.D. March 20, 2017

Best Flooring in Homes with Elderly Occupants

 

A simple question may not be so simple after all. No flooring material is perfectly safe. And no floor is perfect for everyone’s mobility needs. Occupants that use mobility aids such as walkers and wheelchairs may be best served by smooth hard flooring surfaces (ADA uses the terms hard, stable and regular). Other occupants who walk but with some difficulty may be served better by non-slip softer flooring surfaces (that are also stable and regular). Here we describe a few options that may work for elderly homeowners, occupants and their visitors.

Regardless of the physical health and mobility of home occupants, there are some things that can be done to reduce the risk of falling and improve mobility. We have discussed some of these recommendations before. Here’s a quick list of ways to improve home mobility by removing tripping hazards. Then we will discuss flooring options.

Remove Tripping and Slipping Hazards from Your Home

  • Remove loose wires or cords from pathways
  • Remove throw rugs
  • Replace or cover furniture and other objects that have sharp hard edges and corners
  • Fix any uneven flooring – thresholds between rooms should be ¼” or less
  • Use good lighting to highlight walking pathways
  • Have night lights placed in hallways and rooms that can be dark
  • Wipe up spills and standing water immediately
  • Eliminate stairs and steps – this may mean to remodel so that you are living, eating and sleeping on the ground floor

Consider the possibility that you may fall. Add grab bars and support poles especially in areas where you are transitioning up or down (bathtub, shower, toilet, bed).

Flooring Options for Seniors

There are common flooring features for all occupants regardless of their mobility condition. My advice is to start by eliminating certain types of flooring.

  1. Tile and grout. Avoid larger tile with grout recesses as they can catch the wheels on a wheelchair
  2. Cheaper, thinner wood laminates. These tend to be spongy and bounce under foot and under a mobility device
  3. High pile carpet. Any carpet pile that is greater than ½” can slow and catch wheels and footwear.
  4. Area rugs with edges that are in pathways. Low pile wall-to-wall rugs may be OK if the edge is not in a pathway.
  5. Smooth stone and tile. These hard surfaces offer little cushioning and become slippery when wet

Knowing what flooring not to install still leaves us with a number of flooring options. Remember that if you choose different flooring for different rooms that the transition height between them should be smooth or less than ¼”. This may require changes to the sub-floor by adding a layer of plywood or a thin set or floor leveler to the room with the lower finished flooring.

Wood

One of my preferences is wood flooring. Although it does not meet all safety issues, it does offer a smooth solid surface that often improves the look, feel and resale value of your home.

Hardwood. The beauty of hardwood flooring is undeniable. It is minimally ¾” thick so it is a nice and firm product if it is installed correctly. It can dent and show wear – especially softer wood and at entrances from the outside. And be sure that it is finished professionally to protect it for a longer time. If you want to retain an unspoiled finished look to a wood floor, clean shoes and wheels before entering the house. You may want to add a large-size, low-pile, rubber non-slip mat at the entry with beveled edges.

Engineered wood. Engineered wood flooring is a similar surface as hardwood flooring. It has a ¼” to ½” thick layer of true hardwood on top and a core of several layers of plywood underneath. It is more structurally stable than hardwood since it will not warp, cup or budge like solid wood, as it is more resistant to moisture than solid wood. Engineered wood flooring is not as resistant to deep scratches, Select a product with a well-designed core and a thick top layer. Quality engineered wood has up to three finishes, meaning that you will be able to sand it up to three times (many hardwoods can be sanded up to seven times).

Commercial Flooring in Residential Homes

As an alternative to traditional residential flooring options such as roll carpet, ceramic tile, linoleum, and laminates, you may want to consider some of the newer products that are used in schools, hospitals, commercial stores and offices, which must often follow ADA regulations. Safety, comfort and durability should be as important in your home as it is to a commercial enterprise. And many

VCT (Vinyl Composition Tiles) accounts for approximately 80% of U.S. commercial and institutional flooring (http://www.slipdoctors.com/slippery-resilient-floors-vct.asp). It is thicker than consumer-grade vinyl tile and installed with adhesive rather than a peel-and-stick backing. It is also very comfortable to stand on making it a popular choice for grocery stores, offices and play rooms. Per Slip Doctors, VCT is a good choice for higher foot traffic areas such as kitchens, laundry rooms and bathrooms. Its high abrasion resistance makes it very low maintenance, and can be found in designs that resemble wood, stone and concrete. If your VCT floor becomes slippery when wet, Slip Doctors recommend SlipDoctors™ Floor Grip coating for VCT floors. It is an easy-to-apply coating that increases traction and leaves behind a high-gloss look. Floor Grip is a water-based sealer with zero VOC's and fumes.

Carpet tiles. Many businesses and institutions select carpet tiles for high-traffic commercial applications. They have a very low pile, a firm face, vinyl backing and no pad. They are easy to install, although I would suggest that you use carpet adhesive to help keep the carpet tile in place.

Businesses use carpet tiles because they are extremely durable and can withstand the wear and tear caused by foot traffic. Vacuum and clean as normal but if an individual tile gets stained deeply you can remove it to clean or you can replace it (keep extras on hand). Carpet tiles come in countless colors and textures. Tile edges can get worn out over time. Using high quality carpet adhesive can help in reducing the occurrence of loose and frayed edges.

Flooring to Absorb Falls

Rein Tideiksaar, Ph.D., an expert in fall prevention and president of FallPrevent, LLC (Blackwood, NJ), discusses flooring options in long-term care facilities “How Flooring Can Reduce Fall Risk and Injury.” According to Dr. Tideiksaar, the ideal flooring should have a firm surface under normal activities that softens under impact. He describes a new kind of flooring called SmartCells Fall Protection flooring that provides a firm walking surface but reduces the force of impact if a fall occurs. Dr. Tideiksaar observes that this material “appears to be a promising option for the reduction of injuries from falls” in long-term care facilities.

Kathryn Doyle in an April 2015 for Reuters Health News reported on a special impact-absorbing flooring being tested in long-term care facilities. She reviewed the preliminary results of the effectiveness of half-inch thick tiles that have a spongy polyurethane/polyurea interior. She notes that the tiles “reduced fall injuries by nearly 60 percent in a new study of women in Swedish nursing homes, though the soft floors may also be linked to more falls…”

Summary

Selection of flooring material in a home is often based upon its look, cost, and durability. As we recognize the importance of universal design, we also begin to consider how flooring affects our home’s livability, visitability and safety. There are flooring materials that offer hard, stable and regular surfaces. New products are being developed to combine a firm walking surface with impact absorption. Check out flooring materials in other homes or displays to see what works best for you. And consider installing commercial products as these may meet your flooring needs better than traditional residential flooring options.

To help others with their flooring selections, let us know your experience with different flooring materials.




Bruce Montgomery Ph.D.
Bruce Montgomery Ph.D.

Author

Dr. Bruce Montgomery is a licensed building contractor in Michigan and Florida. He is a Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist as designated by the National Association of Home Builders. He has also achieved an Executive Certificate in Home Modification from the University of Southern California. He has a wide ranging educational background, including a Master of Science degree in Entomology, with a Master of Science degree in Forestry and a Ph.D. in educational administration.