Long-Term Care: How Good Use of Color Improves a Home's Safety and Accessibility
Your goal, while caring for an aging loved one, is to make her home both safe for her and accessible to her. In several ways, the colors used in her home can dramatically improve both. Fortunately, adding or changing color is also one of the least expensive home modifications.
Understanding the importance of color
Changes in vision frequently accompany aging. These may go beyond your needing reading glasses or new prescriptions for distance. There may be changes in perception that make it more difficult to recognize different colors and what they signify. An older person may find it hard to tell the difference between navy blue and black, for example, or between light green and yellow. Not such a big problem if it just means mismatched socks but it can be more serious if it results in bumping into doors or walls or missing a step on a stairway. And on the highway, if the signage isn’t done with attention to the size of the letters and the colors of arrows or other symbols, someone might misread a sign or miss an exit.
Color has three main characteristics: hue (the shade), saturation (the purity of the color), and brightness (lightness or darkness). There are a seemingly limitless number of hues, but they all fall somewhere on the basic color spectrum of red, yellow, green, cyan, blue, magenta. Colors with high saturation look rich and full, while colors with low saturation look pale and washed out. Dark colors absorb light, while light colors reflect it.
For older people or people with low vision, specialists recommend using bright colors rather than pastels. Red, orange, and yellow are more visible than beige or pale blue. They also recommend plain colors rather than patterns, which are confusing. Wallpaper with a complicated design is not a good choice for a home modification. In all situations, good lighting can increase color brightness and prevent colors from blending into each other.
Using contrast for safety
It’s not just the colors you choose, but how they contrast with surrounding colors. Increasing contrast — differences between light and dark colors — is an effective safety modification and makes the home more accessible. Increasing the contrast between an object and its background makes the object more visible. Here are some examples:
Contrasting colors (dark strip of tape on a light wood, or the reverse) tells the person walking up or down stairs to look out for the next step.
Doors, knobs, and frames painted in bright colors increase their visibility, especially if the door itself is white or a neutral color.
Solid floor coverings (tile or carpet) emphasize the boundary between the wall and the floor.
A dark placemat under a white dinner plate makes it easier to see its shape. Contrasting colors in foods are often used to enhance the appeal of a meal.
In the bathroom, towels that contrast with the color of the wall or tiles are easier to see and grab.
Hardware on kitchen cabinets that contrasts with the basic color makes it easier to find.
Other uses of contrasting colors
Once you start noticing what a difference contrast in color makes, you will find many ways to use this technique. Here are a few:
Labels on pill bottles
Buttons on telephones and TV remotes
Post-it notes (the fluorescent variety in particular)
File folders for bills or medical information
Do a little color experimenting with small items and small spaces before you embark on major modifications. You may be surprised at what a difference a little color can make in improving safety and accessibility.