Tweaking your home to 'age in place'

Dec 9, 2012 @ 12:01 am

By Bloomberg News

Richard Hayman, 67, and his wife, Carolyn, are shelling out $110,000 to complete a strategic part of their retirement plan.

They aren't purchasing a fixed annuity. They are making their 1978 Rockville, Md., tract house a place where they can age gracefully.

“We avoided nursing homes for our parents, and we want it to be the same for our kids,” Mr. Hayman said.

The Haymans' desire to stay put — “aging in place” is the popular term — isn't surprising. An AARP survey found that more than 80% of us want to stay in our home as we grow old.

And as boomers go, so goes the remodeling industry. The National Association of Home Builders said that the number of members with a certified aging-in-place specialist (CAPS) designation has more than doubled since October 2008, to 4,751.

What distinguishes the Haymans is that they are renovating now so that their house will be user-friendly and safe for their older bodies — something just 30% of remodelers do, according to a survey of CAPS contractors.

“Most calls I get are for an emergency situation where someone needs an immediate remodel to accommodate an injury or illness,” said Louis Tenenbaum, an aging-in-place expert. “You can't design, get permits and finish the construction in a short timeline so the person can get home fast.”

That can mean time in a rehabilitation facility or a move to assisted living, rather than being able to return home right away.

Could all the work be for naught if an elderly homeowner becomes so mentally or physically disabled that staying at home isn't an option? In extreme cases, yes.

But by making the changes, homeowners are increasing their options and most likely increasing the value of their homes. They also presumably will benefit from and enjoy many of the changes well before they reach a point where living at home is untenable.

Mr. Tenenbaum and others in his field recommend following the Haymans' lead.

Whether you are 37 or 67, incorporate age-friendly features into every renovation project. And prepping for an age-friendly home doesn't mean scrimping on aesthetics.

“You can have beautiful — and safe and accessible,” said Leslie Stern, a Chicago interior designer who specializes in working with seniors and people with special needs.†

For example, homeowners who want a marble floor in the bathroom should consider going with honed, rather than polished, marble to make it less slippery, she said.

Though bigger-ticket projects can require ample discretionary cash, those outlays may mean savings in less or no time spent in an assisted-living facility or nursing home.

According to a Genworth Financial Inc. survey, the average monthly tab at an assisted-living facility this year is $3,200 per person, and more than double that for a private room in a nursing home.

In a research paper for the MetLife Mature Market Institute, Mr. Tenenbaum estimated that the payback for a $10,000 aging-in-place project is about 14 months when measured against moving to an assisted-living facility.

On the do-it-yourself front, when preparing a home for someone older, the first items to go are area rugs. No matter how well-secured, they are a tripping accident waiting to happen.

Replace cabinet and drawer pulls with easy-to-grip handles rather than knobs, which can be harder for arthritic hands. Raise key electrical outlets and lower light switches for easy access.

For $1,000 or so, you can do a serious lighting upgrade. What works for your 30- or 40-year-old eyes isn't going to cut it at 75.

Focus on hallways and task lighting in the kitchen and in the bathroom.

Speaking of the bathroom, grab bars are a must near the toilet and at the entrance to a shower or bath. If there is seat in the shower, include another grab bar or two to help the user maneuver on and off.

SAFE STAIRS

Replacing the usual 14.5-inch toilet with one that is 16 inches high is also popular, as is adding a curbless-entry (even with the floor) shower.

Those living in a multistory home should focus on making the stairs as safe as possible and install railings on both sides. That makes it easier to rely on a dominant hand going up or down steps, and in the event one hand becomes injured, there will be support for the other.

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