No Place Like Home


Seniors have lots of options to adapt their houses without a major remodel. Here’s how you can help.
By Barbara Ballinger

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A lot of older adults aren’t going anywhere. Even the pools, gyms, coffee bars, and cooking classes at many senior living communities can’t persuade some to sell the house where they raised their families and accumulated a lifetime of memories and possessions. A full 76% of Americans age 50 and older say they want to remain at home throughout their golden years, according to an AARP survey. So what are the smartest decisions people can make in pursuit of that goal?
Most experts say anyone 55 years and older should plan their future living situation long before they have difficulty climbing stairs or stepping into a bathtub. Too often, people make changes in where they live only after a crisis like a serious fall or stroke—which compounds the stress on them and their family. A new category of home auditors can help clients analyze which modifications can be the most helpful. Daniel Edwards, owner of the Handyman Connection in Hanover, Mass., is developing a program to train people to conduct an aging-in-place analysis that includes a checklist of options.
The movement to age in place is gaining attention from real estate practitioners and a bevy of other professionals, from designers and architects to health care advisers schooled in accessible design. Agents and brokers with expertise in this niche, like those with the Seniors Real Estate Specialists designation, can help clients adapt their homes to address physical or cognitive impairments or find homes that will better meet their needs.
There are now “living laboratory” homes that allow people to see possibilities first-hand. Rosemarie Rossetti’s Universal Design Living Laboratory in Columbus, Ohio, showcases what she needed to live independently after a bicycle accident that left her paralyzed. Also in Columbus, Lisa Cini, founder of Mosaic Design Studio, is transforming a home to demonstrate accessible features to the public.
These strategies offer great support at reasonable cost for many aging-in-place homeowners and can help you be the adviser your clients need.

Design Modifications

Better Living Design in Asheville, N.C., and architect Jeffrey DeMure, author of Livable Design, recommend four steps to improve existing homes: putting essential spaces on a main level, including a first-floor bedroom; creating a zero-step entry; ensuring good interior air circulation; and improving kitchens and bathrooms.
When steps lead up to the front door, getting into and around a home can be a logistical nightmare for someone who uses a wheelchair. Another challenge is interior hallways and doorways that are too narrow for wheelchair users or someone with a walker to pass through. Often these situations are found when an apartment building, condominium, or house was constructed before the Americans with Disabilities Act became law in 1990. While private homes don’t have to meet the same strict criteria as public buildings, such as door openings at least 32 inches wide, more builders and architects are following the same guidelines so their designs work for everyone, a tenet of universal design.
When an alternative to front steps is needed outside, a basic aluminum ramp runs $3,000 to $6,000, while a nicer wood design could be double that price, says Edwards. An elevator is more costly—typically starting at $15,000—and many homes don’t have the space to accommodate one, says Princeton, N.J., architect Joshua Zinder.
Rooms can be switched around to avoid taking down walls or putting on additions, Zinder says. After his dad had a stroke, Zinder transformed his father’s home, making a living room into a bedroom because it was more accessible to a bathroom, and making the original bedroom into a den. Zinder also worked on architect Michael Graves’ home after Graves became paralyzed from a spinal infection.
Because falls can be devastating for an elderly homeowner, Daejin Kim, an aging-in-place expert and assistant professor of interior design at Iowa State University, suggests horizontal rather than vertical storage so homeowners don’t have to use stepstools. Falls can also be avoided by removing area rugs and electrical cords that span across a room.
Those with poor eyesight benefit from rooms painted with lighter colors, says Jennifer Naughton, executive vice present and risk consulting officer at insurance company Chubb North America. For a homeowner in a wheelchair, lowering even one countertop can improve their daily living, says Dak Kopec, an associate professor of health care interior design at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Because spending quality time outside can help increase serotonin and lessen anxiety and depression, Kopec recommends modifying outdoor space so it’s accessible to all.

Home Products

Apart from architectural and design changes, new products can make most facets of life easier for older homeowners. A stair or chair lift provides a relatively easy, affordable way to get to a second or third floor in a multilevel home or apartment. Most run under $2,000. And although remodeling a bathroom can become expensive—$33,374 for a midrange universal design space, according to building industry publisher Hanley Wood—switching out a tub for a curbless shower with a bench is affordable and helps “avoid an accident waiting to happen,” says Kopec.
A heat lamp in a bathroom helps older adults cope with the common problem of feeling cold. “It’s an easy retrofit to remove a fan and rewire for the lamp,” says Edwards. He also likes to add touchless faucets for those with arthritic hands and replace doorknobs with easier-to-turn lever handles. Grab bars look less institutional in a nylon coating or a sharp black, red, or yellow color, says Zinder. Consider grab bars for kitchens and in hallways for safer walks around the home. Adequate lighting helps, especially for nighttime bathroom visits. Because bending and reaching deep into a cabinet can become harder, items like ShelfGenie’s custom pullout shelves retrofit base cabinets without a major remodel, says ShelfGenie CEO Andy Pittman.
The latest technology—robotic vacuums and lawnmowers; security systems, and smart-home devices that control lighting and temperature—are also assets for coping with aging’s challenges, Cini says. And insurance companies are leveraging Papa Inc., a company that provides college-age “grandkids on demand” to assist older adults with transportation, chores, tech lessons, and more.

Toby Parks, SRES
p: (520) 310-0122