Al Heavens is a Haddonfield, N.J.- based, nationally syndicated, home-improvement writer and author whose newspaper columns, magazine articles and books have been the first word on remodeling for 50 million readers for more than three decades. He is the author of What No One Ever Tells You About Renovating Your Home and Remodeling On The Money: Fifteen Innovative Projects Designed to Add Value to Your Home, and was “The Gadgeteer” on Discovery Channel’s Home Matters program.

by Al Heavens | The best remodeling solutions for aging in place

Seven years ago, I severed the quadriceps tendon in my left leg in a kayaking accident in Maine. It required surgery and six months of physical therapy.

The fact that I was in good shape for a 62-year-old meant that I would fully recover from an injury common, according to my surgeon, to professional athletes in their 20s.

The six-month recovery period was concerning at first. I wasn’t certain that my house would accommodate someone who needed his wife’s help to put on his left sock.

More than a year before the accident, I had built a basement office that was easily and safely accessible from the kitchen. The homemade desk was deep enough to let me stretch my legs – one of them in a brace running from my hip to my ankle.

“The solution to the problem of aging in place lies in flexible, or “universal,” design, which employs features that allow a house to grow and contract with changes in needs and lifestyles.”

The second-floor master bedroom was accessible only by a set of narrow, carpeted stairs, so I spent six months in the first-floor guest room. I left the house for physical therapy appointments by the three stairs – handrails on both sides — from the kitchen to the backyard courtyard and a straight shot to the driveway.

A major issue was showering. The master bath shower has a lower threshold than the one in the downstairs, which required me to climb into a bathtub. Until I regained enough strength. I needed help getting in and out of the downstairs shower.

Those six months in rehab gave me insight into something about which I have written for many years: retrofitting homes for those with disabilities and for people who wish to “age in place.”

Just what is “aging in place?”

Simply put, it is the desire of a homeowner to remain in familiar surroundings as long as he or she is able to live independently.

The big push for “aging in place” started in the mid-1990s as the first baby boomers began reaching age 50. Although “retirement communities” had been around since the late 1950s, they were in Sun Belt states, and the majority of aging boomers weren’t willing to venture that far from the familiar, especially their children and grandchildren.

Many homebuilders began offering “active-adult” communities closer to home. The problem, however, was that builders assumed all boomers were wealthy, and priced their communities higher than most boomers could afford.

Faced with no real options, more than 50 percent of boomers began exploring the concept of aging in place, which would require familiar surroundings to be remodeled to accommodate immediate or gradual changes in lifestyle.

The solution to the problem of aging in place lies in flexible, or “universal,” design, which employs features that allow a house to grow and contract with changes in needs and lifestyles.

There are seven principles of universal design, but let me just summarize: As people age, they progressively will have trouble doing everyday tasks, such as reaching down to open a kitchen drawer, reaching up to get a book at the top of the bookshelf, or stepping over the raised base of a shower stall without having something to grab on to.

Universal design features make the house accessible to everyone, not just those having increased problems with accessibility.

One is having a master bedroom on the first floor. If the design is flexible, the master suite can effectively become a self-contained apartment for a spouse or relative who needs to use a wheelchair.

Having a door that opens from the bedroom onto a patio with easy access to a car in the driveway allows the disabled occupant unencumbered access to medical appointments, as well as ease in simply getting outside.

Homebuilders will insist that this kind of design flexibility is only possible in new construction. Retrofitting an existing home to accommodate aging in place or for people with disabilities is prohibitively expensive, many of them say.

Yes and no. As time has passed, retrofitting has become less expensive as remodelers have acquired more experience and product costs have declined. Single-floor living can be achieved by enlarging the first floor.

For example, 15 years ago, retrofitting a home to accommodate the addition of an elevator was prohibitively expensive. Today, with improved technology, it can be done for as little as $20,000.

The NAHB Remodelers, a trade group representing 55,000 of the nation’s remodeling contractors, has been pushing the aging in place concept for the last 20 years and with great success.

One result was the creation of the Remodelers’ certified aging in place program, which has resulted in a more educated and sophisticated approach to retrofitting existing homes to help people live independently in familiar surroundings for as long as possible.

Here are issues involving entry in a house that appear on the Remodelers’ most recent checklist.

  • At least one no-step entry with a cover
  • Sensor light at exterior no-step entry focusing on the front-door lock
  • There needs to be 32-inches of clear width, which requires a 36-inch door
  • Non-slip flooring in foyer
  • Entry door sidelight or high/low peephole viewer; sidelight should provide both privacy and safety
  • Doorbell in an accessible location
  • Surface to place packages on when opening a door

One major issue with remodeling for aging in place is aesthetics. For the typical consumer, the sight of a ramp made of pressure-treated wood slapped on stairs leading to the front door of a house is how they view “barrier-free.”

But, as the Remodelers’ group emphasizes, barrier-free doesn’t have to be ugly, and there are architects, remodelers and builders who are coming up with aesthetically pleasing yet workable solutions to accessibility, not only for people with disabilities by aging baby boomers, who generally are unwilling to acknowledge they are getting older and show up at the gym every chance they get to prove it.

Changes can be subtle. For example, replacing doorknobs with levers is completely unnoticeable if done correctly. Moving electric outlets farther up the wall and light switches father down the wall is also very easy. Doorways can be made 30 inches wide to accommodate wheelchairs without making a big deal of it.

In addition, many of the accommodations for people with disabilities that have been introduced into public spaces are now available for homes. The example that immediately comes to mind is the electronic-sensor faucet in bathrooms.

Finally, consider seats in showers, which is considered a universal-design feature that allows people in wheelchairs to move with little difficulty in and out.

They are now a standard feature of showers in new construction.

My wife saw one in a recently renovated penthouse condo I had listed for sale.

“What a great idea,” she said. “That would sure make shaving legs easier.”

And if you would like to learn more about universal design, you can check out our webinar on the topic in the link below: