Changing With Need: Adapting Living Space for Homeowners Will Reduce Mobility

Joanne Penhale, Special to the Montreal Gazette
Published on: December 11, 2015 | Last Updated: December 11, 2015 6:23 PM EST

After considering assisted living residences and condos in light of his weakening legs, David Reich, 88, finally decided to stay in his own home.

My big disadvantage: this is a four-floor house, said the retired architect, sitting in a wheelchair in his basement office.

A caregiver helps Reich transfer from his electric wheelchair to the padded seat on his Bruno stairlift. At the push of a button, the lift steadily climbs the stairwell and turns as it approaches the main floor of the Westmount home on Summit Crescent. Reich could keep riding the same lift around two corners and up to the next floor, where his bedroom and another electric wheelchair are, but with help, he gets off on the main floor, and into yet another electric wheelchair.

Without the lift, I couldnt stay here, Reich said. As well, caregivers are an essential part of his daily routine three are on rotation so someone is available at all times. Transfers from seat to seat like from a wheelchair to the lift are challenging, Reich said. The retrofits hes made to his home, he said, have minimized his need to transfer as much as possible.

Reich had a mild case of polio in 1950, and his legs began to weaken in the 1990s, he said, due to accelerated aging of his nervous system related to post-polio syndrome.

Each step of the way, every few years, Ive had to make additional surrenders.

His first problem was getting up and down stairs, he said, so he had custom-made stainless steel railings installed. Noticing a gap in the market for ready-made handrails, he and his nephew designed and launched a handrail system under the name of Promenaid.

With my brackets, you dont have to custom fit anything, Reich said. The continuous handrail system runs up his turning staircase from his basement. Its corner fittings can assume various angles, he said, and the railings can support 1,000 pounds at any point.

As he continued to lose mobility, railings werent enough. His reliance on wheelchairs and his decision to stay home necessitated several modifications to the home.

Ive always retrofitted my home, Reich said, laughing. The 3,500-square-foot home built in 1920 has been added to and renovated over the 45 years Reich has owned it. It has hosted two marriages, six children and 15 grandchildren.

His more recent retrofits allow him to comfortably access most areas of the home.

The master bedroom includes a device to help the homeowner lift himself from the bed.

A lifting pole with a triangular handle hangs above Reichs bed; it helps him turn over at night, and bring his legs over the edge of his bed when he gets up.

In his nearby master bathroom, the entrance to his shower stall is almost level with the floor, and its wide enough to roll his commode into, Reich said.

To accommodate his wheelchairs, Reich has widened some doorways, and on some doors that open against a wall, hes installed unconventional hinges that allow the door to open wide enough for his wheelchair to pass through. Reich has removed raised doorsills and adapted others with small ramps with low inclines.

The large doorways in the living room facilitate the mobility with a wheelchair.

Reich modified the entrance to his garage so he can ride the wheelchair in his basement down a gradual slope straight into the back of his adapted van, which is driven by a caregiver.

In his windowed library, Reich uses an exercise machine he can roll up to and work out his arms and legs.
He also resurfaced his rough stone terrace with pine, so his wheelchair can roll over it easily.

A widened door has been installed to access a resurfaced terrace.

Reich rides up to the cherry wood dining table he designed 20 years ago. Its sturdy legs run down its centre, out of the path of knees or any chair that may pull up to it, wheeled or otherwise.
If you live long enough, you accumulate a lot of things: mostly experience, said Reich, whose professional history includes work as an arbitrator in cases of design and construction gone wrong, and designing large scale industrial projects, like a smelter in Lac St-Jean, where Reich said every detail needed to be thought out before construction began. Reich insists designers ought to consider safety and access for people with reduced mobility.

Sitting at one end of a long table that seats 16, Reich points out a recent home design article from the Montreal Gazette and begins critiquing the designers lack of foresight. The featured bathrooms deep bathtub and lack of anything to hold onto would be totally unsuitable for anyone with mobility problems, he said. We have to foresee these things its our job, Reich continued.

Able-bodied homeowners could think ahead by installing lower light switches and strong railings since anyone can become disabled, he said, and everyone is more likely to fall or become disabled as they age.

If a home can be made accessible and safer, so much the better, Reich said, stopping short of insisting changes be made to Quebecs building code. If you can do it without undue expense, why not do it?

The CLSC covers 28 hours per week of Reichs round-the-clock assistance, he said, and the rest he pays for himself. Including the cost of his stairlift, and his adapted van, Reich estimated hes invested about $120,000 in retrofits to increase his mobility, without government subsidies.
The city of Montreal manages a subsidy program for retrofitting homes for people with disabilities when the retrofits are considered simple and economic.

When André Faubert, 32, became reliant on a wheelchair, his parents converted their attached garage in Dollard-des-Ormeaux into his insulated bedroom and private wheelchair-accessible bathroom. They also had a ramp installed to the front door of the home. Following a standard of 12 feet of length, for every foot of height, Faubert said, the concrete ramp with metal railings follows a U-shape to the homes entrance, which also can be accessed with stairs. These initial renovations in 1995, when Faubert was 11, cost roughly $25,000, of which $16,000 was subsidized.

Faubert has a progressive neurological disease and his needs changed again in 2000, he said; an electronic lift was installed to help him move from his bed to his bathroom.

While his father or brother can just lift him to his bathroom, Faubert said, Im about 195 pounds of dead weight If my mom is there, she uses the lift.

The lift travels along a rail on the ceiling, and Faubert said the government covered nearly all of the $6,000 it cost. Faubert plans to live in his family home long term. I need more and more help as Im getting older, he said.

To help people with disabilities retrofit their residences, the city of Montreal runs the Residential Adaptation Assistance Program, which is financed by the province.

All people with disabilities whose limitations affect their everyday activities are eligible for assistance, said city of Montreal spokesperson Jacques-Alain Lavallée, noting assistance covers economical solutions, and those eligible include elderly people with reduced mobility who live with home-owning adult children.
To access the subsidies, a homeowner including landlords on behalf of tenants submit a report from an occupational therapist, Lavallée said, demonstrating that the impairment is significant and persistent, and that the disability requires alterations to their home.

If someone does high-end retrofits, Lavallée said, the landlord has to pay the difference between the admissible work and the real price of the project.

For more information about the subsidy program, go to

Reproduced from