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Physical Abilities of the Aging Body

After our youth and active adulthood, each of us experiences a gradual decline in physical strength, flexibility, dexterity, and endurance. A variety of conditions contribute to this natural aging process. Our concern is with the physical losses that can create difficulties in daily living.


No two persons age the same. Some will have vision and/or hearing losses while others might suffer from decreased physical abilities. Some of these conditions are described below, along with suggestions that can help compensate for physical and functional limitations.

Vision Loss

Older people have a higher rate of blindness than any other age group. Among those 85-years and older, one of 20 persons is legally blind. Changes in vision accelerate after age 50 and in crease in severity after age 65. It can become more difficult for older persons to see objects clearly. The lens of the eye can become opaque and yellow, affecting its ability to discern closely related colors, especially in the blue-green end of the color spectrum.

It takes longer for an older person's eyes to change focus from an object close at hand to another farther away. And it takes longer for them to focus when they move from light to dark areas or vice versa. During these intervals, they may not be able to see hazards such as steps or furniture.

Fortunately, visual impairments and blindness are not always the severely handicapping conditions they are commonly imagined to be. Visually-impaired people can adapt successfully to most environmental circumstances, especially familiar spaces such as their own homes.

If you or members of your household are visually impaired:

  • Clearly mark (with white or reflecting tape) hazardous changes in floor levels.
  • Position furniture away from areas where you walk or move about most often.
  • Adjust the illumination throughout your home. Use higher wattage light bulbs where appropriate. Distribute the light evenly and avoid using shiny surfaces, to help minimize glare.
  • Become aware of your home's color scheme. Yellow-oranges and reds are more easily distinguished by older adults.
  • Avoid using closely related colors together. Instead, use contrasting colors between places like doorways and walls, dishes and tablecloths, and the risers and flat surfaces of steps.
  • Keep a consistent light level in both bedrooms and hallways and remember to use night lights.

Hearing Loss

Hearing loss is the most common disability among older persons. As people age, they generally lose inner ear bone conductivity and/or nerve sensitivity. Hearing ability, especially in the higher frequencies, declines gradually. Background noises interfere with ability to hear a normal conversation, and people with hearing loss may be considered inattentive and withdraw from social participation.

A profoundly deaf person often cannot use telephones and often must travel to relay messages. Teletypewriters (TTYS) can greatly increase communication between hearing-impaired people, their families and friends. These machines type out telephone messages that can be picked up by another similar machine. People with less dramatic hearing loss can use amplified handsets or have an extension bell installed on their telephone.

Appropriate emergency communication systems are critical for deaf people. Audible warning signals should be accompanied by visual warning systems or vibration devices. To insure your own comfort and safety:

  • For easier communication, it is helpful to be in the quietest corner of a room or in a side room away from group noises.
  • Position yourself where you can easily hear a conversation.
  • Carpet the floors and put curtains in the windows to reduce sharp noises and distracting echoes.
  • If necessary, purchase special electronic devices such as hearing aids, vibrating alarm clocks, and an amplified TV set or flashing lights to announce information and warnings.
  • Contact your telephone company for amplified handsets, signal devices, TTYs and extension bells. Ask for their special needs department.

Hand Limitations

Arthritis is a common disability among older persons. This malady can cause painful degeneration of the joints, and severely restrict mobility. For people with arthritis or other dexterity-limiting conditions, operating controls and switches, gripping objects such as door knobs, and using tools are the chief problems.

If arthritis affects anyone in your household, you may want to install large lever-type controls on faucets, door latches, and appliance knobs. You can easily modify an existing knob control by fitting a rubber furniture leg tip over the control and inserting a small wooden dowel through it to create a lever arm. To determine whether or not a control can be used by a person with a dexterity problem, try the following "rule-of-thumb":

If an able-bodied person can operate the control with his or her fist closed, then almost anyone, regardless of hand disability, will be able to operate the control.

Range of Reach

people reaching

A person in a chair or wheelchair is limited to a maximum side reach of 54" and a maximum frontal reach of 48". The lowest easy reach from a seated position is approximately 9" to the side and 12" to the front.

A standing person has a very different range of reach. When you undertake any home changes, remember to consider these differences.

Frailty, Disorientation and Dizziness

Many older persons experience occasional dizziness, but a chronic condition resulting in disorientation, constant dizziness or frailty can cause familiar environments to become hostile. If a member of your household displays any of these symptoms, try to make your home as safe and easily-perceived as possible. The following suggestions might prove helpful:

  • Use furnishings that are stable and without sharp corners to minimize the effects of a fall.
  • Make the environment safe by removing scatter rugs, sharp objects and clutter but keep the layout of familiar furniture and pathways the same.
  • You may also want to consider placing barriers at dangerous locations to prevent unstable or disoriented members of your household from inadvertently falling down stairs or entering unfamiliar rooms where hazards are present.

Mobility Impairments

Walking from one place to another and going up and down steps can be extremely difficult for people with limited mobility. For those with heart disorders, these activities can be particularly hazardous.

You can overcome these problems by relocating bedrooms or living spaces onto the same level, by establishing convenient storage areas, and by removing hazards on paths between commonly used rooms in your home. Try to conserve energy by climbing stairs only when necessary and by storing frequently used household items where they can be retrieved with a minimum of bending, reaching, lifting, and carrying.


Reprinted with permission from the American Association of Retired Persons.