A Home For Always
More seniors are choosing to stay put in their family homes, and modifying them to meet new needs
July 1, 2007
By CHIP JACOBS
Special to the Times
In America-the-gray, you don’t necessarily need a condo in Boca Raton, Fla., or a senior-living community in the California desert to inaugurate your golden years. You could be sitting in your retirement nest right now without even realizing in it.
At one time, folks typically moved to new cities during their white-hair years, but today’s homeowners are squeezing more time out of the family homes where they raised their children.
Adapting homes to aging or less able bodies has gone mainstream. The numbers are overwhelming.
Nearly 90% of people 50 years and older surveyed in a recent AARP study expressed the desire to remain at their current address indefinitely. And although there aren’t definitive statistics about how many achieve that goal, a 2006 National Assn. of Home Builders survey of 30,000 consumers found that the majority of people in that age group wanted to stay in their homes and planned to undertake home improvements or remodel.
In addition, the association says that three-quarters of U.S. home remodelers have reported an uptick in demand for adaptable designs in the last five years.
An aging-in-place course, developed with AARP, is the builders association’s fastest-growing education program and attracts remodelers, general contractors, designers, architects and even healthcare professionals. The training involves, among other things, classroom learning about provisions of the Americans With Disabilities Act, plus spending time in a wheelchair, with socked hands or with blinders on to raise awareness of what it is like to live with a disability.
In Southern California, a cottage industry of designers, contractors and consultants has sprung up to meet the demand for adaptive homes.
“We tell clients that if you are going to stay in your home until you go out feet first, then we can do things from a design and building standpoint to allow you to,” said Ben Morey, president of Signal Hill-based Morey Construction.
Morey, whose firm specializes in residential design-build jobs, became interested in adaptable design from personal experience — constructing a wheelchair ramp behind a retaining wall and a threshold-less shower before his ill father came to live with him.
Done right, adaptations can be almost imperceptible — such as making doorways 32 inches wide instead of 30 inches.
“With a little forethought, you can do a beautiful adaptable design that doesn’t scream disability,” said Karen Zieba of the Long Beach-based remodeling firm Zieba Builders Inc. “The biggest hindrance is that not enough people think about designing their home for another phase of their life…. They had their design done by an architect who wasn’t thinking 30 years down the road.”
A lack of foresight can be costly. Builders estimate that basic living-in-place touches, such as adding plywood reinforcements for future shower grab bars, during construction tacks on roughly 5% to a job. Doing it later as a separate project, in which walls might have to be opened, can cost 25% to 30% more.
Once reserved for the disabled and frail, adaptable (also called universal) design is becoming a well-trod niche. Last year, Dallas- based national home builder Centex Homes introduced a model home in Virginia that features low-hung cabinets to facilitate reach and staircases with contrasting wood to assist the sight-impaired.
Closer to home, Irvine encourages builders to include aging-in- place conveniences, and more than a dozen builders — including KB Home and California Pacific Homes — are doing so.
Home Depot, which holds its own adaptable-design classes for customers, recommends that people planning on staying in their family homes into old age concentrate on improving two rooms: the kitchen and the bathroom. Kitchens can be outfitted with such conveniences as slide-out shelves and adjustable-height countertops. Bathroom options include grab bars and motion-sensing faucets.
During the recent remodel of their Valencia tract home, Shauna and Tom Woodall built a two-room wing for Tom’s 78-year-old mother, anticipating her future needs. The contractor widened the doorways, installed a shower bench and used a pocket door for the closet, rather than a swinging one.
Shauna Woodall said her mother-in-law isn’t the type of person to want a support bar in the shower: “She’s one of those people who can out-walk me. She visited several senior-retrofitted homes but found them too sterile-looking.”
For those opting to stay at home, common sense should dictate the floor plan.
Bedrooms should be on the ground level, stairs avoided if possible and handrails placed next to steps.
Experts recommend replacing door handles with easier-turning levers and installing nonskid floors to help prevent falls. In new home building, if it’s a multistory home, closets on the different floors can be stacked over each other. Should the time come, a contractor can rip them out and install a small elevator in the vertical shaft.
Zieba’s firm made alterations to the home of a paralyzed Vietnam veteran. It modified his bathroom and kitchen and leveled out the flooring with a $70,000 grant from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“He was going to either have to live in an institution or pay for full-time assisted care,” she said. The changes to his home — making it more wheelchair accessible — gave him another option, one others are exploring. “From a business standpoint, the market is there, and from a sociological standpoint, the need is there,” Zieba said.
A nearly identicial version of this story appeared in the Los Angeles Times. Copyright Los Angeles Times