Aging Parents

How Baby Boomers and Seniors Are “Aging in Place”

 Bill and Betsy Owens recall the growing concerns they had about their house—built in 1876—in Powell, Ohio. They loved the 12-foot ceilings, the circular stairway and the formal parlor. But when the couple thought about the future, the home’s steep steps and narrow doorways meant “it wasn’t very livable,” says Mr. Owens, age 57.

So, three years ago, the Owens built an addition. Now there are no steps from the driveway into their new kitchen and great room. A control pad with smart technology turns lights on and off, and three-foot-wide doorways offer easy access for a grandchild in a stroller or, if the Owens should need it, a walker or wheelchair.

“Our homes aren’t aging as well as we are,” says Mr. Owens, a Columbus, Ohio, contractor.

Older adults are renovating to stay at homeCall it a baby-boom building boom. Hoping to remain in their homes and communities as they age—but recognizing that living spaces can become unsafe and difficult to navigate—people in their 50s and beyond are retrofitting houses, building additions or constructing new digs with age-friendly features.

“You have to design for a ‘you’ that doesn’t exist yet,” says Louis Tenenbaum, a Rockville, Md., contractor and founder of the Aging in Place Institute, a nonprofit that educates businesses and consumers about aging in place.

The big picture is worrisome. A recent study from the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University found that less than 25% of homeowners age 55-plus have a bedroom and full bathroom on the first floor of their homes, a way to get into the house without steps, and no steps between rooms—universal design features that make life easier for all ages.

Remodeling can be pricey. But given the high cost of care in an assisted-living facility or nursing home, such improvements can make sense, experts say.

“People have a financial plan, an estate plan and an insurance plan. How about a frailty or disability plan?” asks Mary Tuuk, a

geriatrician in Denver.

Here is a look at three families who have taken the plunge.

Say goodbye to steps

Two years ago, Frank Briber made the case to his wife, Fran Pollitt: He was no longer willing to live in Fryeburg, Maine. The town has no public transportation, and Portland, the nearest big city, is 90 minutes away. “Rural Maine is a tough place to live as you grow older,” says Mr. Briber, 65, a retired banker.

The pair decided to move to Wayland, Mass., a Boston suburb. They bought Ms. Pollitt’s mother’s house, tore it down and are building a brick, French-chateau-style home.

“We’ve seen our parents get old,” Mr. Briber says. “We want to make it as easy as possible as we enter those years.” For the couple, that means minimal upkeep and no-hassle navigating.

When the house is completed in the first half of next year, it will have a gently sloped walkway—really a ramp with landscaping on both sides to disguise it—to the step-free door. The pair’s master bedroom and bath will be on the main level. The powder room will have a wide door, grab bars that look like elegant towel bars, and a vanity with space below for a walker.

When their adult children (each has two from a prior marriage) and the grandchildren visit, their quarters will be upstairs.

Mr. Briber doesn’t want to worry about mowing, so he’s creating a meadow with wildflowers. And then there is the backyard. “We could have had beautiful tiered terraces,” says Ms. Pollitt, 61, “but we can’t be going up and down steps all the time.” It, too, will be sloped with few stairs.

The couple expects to spend $3 million. The hefty price is less the result of its age-friendly features than of high-end finishes and materials. (It will be a passive-energy house—one designed to use far less energy than the typical home.) Still, if they ever have to sell, Mr. Briber says, “there are enough retired people who would buy this house in a second. There are very few homes designed with aging in place in mind.”

The bathroom gets an upgrade

Sally Evans, 67, and Brian Rodgers, 66, adore their Bellaire, Texas, townhouse and want to live there “for 20 or 30 more years,” says Ms. Evans.

But their small master bathroom had turn faucets, a deep, treacherous bathtub, a narrow 24-inch-wide door, and a step-up shower with sliding glass doors. 

Not today. The door was expanded 10 inches, and the new vanity is raised, making it gentler on the back. The couple nixed the tub and installed lever faucets. (“It’s a lot easier to use,” says Ms. Evans, “and arthritis runs in my family.”) There is also a curbless walk-in shower with a teak fold-up chair.

Oh yes, and five grab bars.

“Even though we don’t need them now, we thought, ‘Why not put them in and be ready?’ ” says Ms. Evans, a public-relations consultant. “Brian and I are in good shape and work out five days a week, so I’m amazed at how much I use the grab bars. I don’t want to take the chance of falling.” She finds the grab bar with a hand-held shower head on it “cool.”

It cost $32,500 to retrofit their bathroom; age-friendly items added just $2,000 to the tab.

No bending, no tripping

The four bedrooms in the Owens’s 19th-century home are an 18-step climb from the first floor.

“Life has a way of throwing you curveballs. It’s a pretty big deal if something were to happen now or in 20 years,” says Mr. Owens.

So the Owens looked around and decided that if they ever need a bedroom on the first floor, it will be their parlor. A full bathroom that’s already nearby makes them golden. 

Today, there are no steps anywhere on the first floor and expansive spaces to move about. “As soon as you walk through the door, you know something is different,” Mr. Owens says.

To prevent tripping, the rugs and entry mat in the new space are recessed into the hardwood floor. The wood is good for walking and wheelchairs, holds up well, and is easy to maintain. A heated-tile floor, great for cold mornings, is also flush with the hardwood in another area.

Kitchen counters have variable heights for sitting (if a person wishes to sit, or if someone is in a wheelchair) and standing. Upper cabinets are few; that helps eliminate heavy lifting, reaching for items, and potentially falling. Drawers and doors underneath the counter close automatically, requiring no hand strength.

Rather than bend down to reach plugs, the couple put outlets at least 18 inches off the floor. A keyless entry means one less thing to worry about, too.

About one-third of the $170,000 price tag for the addition (which would have run $220,000 if Mr. Owens wasn’t in the building business) was spent on age-friendly features, but guests and family of all ages are benefiting. He points out that his three children, ages 17 to 23, will “especially appreciate the no-step entry if they blow out their knees skiing!”

 

 

 
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Housing and Caregiving Updates

Just in time for the holidays. . .Five resources for parents and spouses with dementia and Alzheimer’s, then an interview about boomer and senior housing.

  1. The Alzheimer’s Association. Besides a Caregivers Center with educational resources, updates about the disease, a blog, and support groups, there’s a 24-hour helpline (TK), message boards to fit your situation and an online tool called the Alzheimer’s Navigator. It’s a five-minute survey that asks you questions about your specific situation, offers feedback on your answers, and helps you craft a customized action plan. The coolest part: it gives you resources in your local community.
  2. The National Institute on Aging’s Alzheimer’s Disease and Referral Center. Besides basic consumer information, it lists research centers, clinical trials and news. Another gov. site: alzheimer’s gov. with treatment plans and money matters.
  3. Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, with in-home care strategies and live chats or Skyping with a social worker.
  4. An AARP blog on best books for children about Alzheimer’s and dementia. (I’m biased, I wrote it.)
  5. The National Institute of Health’s list of organizations and associations

Green door houseAnd now, part of an interview I gave to housing expert Steve Moran from the Senior Housing Forum:

How do you see the needs/wants of seniors changing with the emerging wave of Boomer seniors?
As I said in a chapter I wrote in an upcoming book on retirement, “Boomers aren’t going to take aging lying down.” They refuse to accept today’s traditional nursing homes. Rather than grow old in isolation, the Me Generation (which should be retitled the “We” Generation!) plans to do it together. That could mean aging in place with community support and services, sharing housing or moving into a Green House family-style nursing home. And, aging in place technology will play a prominent role. The 78 million boomer demographic ensures they will have more choices if they demand them—which they are. It’s a fascinating time to be a boomer and write about it.

Because my focus very specifically is senior housing, which means in effect I am an insider, I worry that I don’t have the same perception of senior housing as someone who writes from a higher view.  How do you see the senior housing options that exist in the marketplace today?
Not varied enough, but making progress. We have multigenerational designs (Lennar’s Next Gen model and other companies.) Niche communities that are CCRC’s on or near university campuses. LGBT senior housing. The aging in place Village model. Cohousing. Active adult communities. Even with all these choices, the senior housing industry is still evolving and growing. You could say it’s in its adolescent phase!

If you were hired as a consultant to help design the perfect senior housing community what are the things you think would be most important?  What are the things that should be left out?
I’m not an architect, but here’s my dream: A good balance of privacy and social interaction, fabulous exercise facilities, first-rate medical care, a warm and responsive staff, and the ability to call the shots as much as possible. It would be within walking distance of a city or suburban town center so residents would be near restaurants, movies, stores, and people of all ages—the world outside their senior community.

Residents would be able to continue making meaningful contributions (volunteering, mentoring—feeling that they have a purpose). There would be ongoing, varied stimulation—lifelong learning, and rich cultural events not only in senior housing, but also outside the facility. When I look at the physical layout (central nursing stations, shared rooms, an institutional feel) and offerings in my mother-in-law’s nursing home (the highlight is bingo), I want to weep. At least when boomers hit the nursing homes, most will be following the Green House, neighborhood “home” model.

 Photo by jaciXIII courtesy of Flickr

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