Prime Time: Design for 'aging-in-place' improves access, safety, so seniors can live where they want

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMarch 17, 2014 

3 14 mag remodeling

Rose Construction worker Glenn Allen installs drywall corner trim during a bathroom remodel at Bellingham home Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014.

PHILIP A. DWYER — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

Dave Lind’s home remodeling project is the design of the future. His future.

Faced with major health problems, the remodel means Lind can live at home more safely as he ages.

Lind, 51, has early-stage Parkinson’s disease as well as an acute allergy that has caused his lungs to decrease in capacity. His Parkinson’s causes severe shaking in his arms, and he often has difficulty holding a glass or utensil.

So he hired Rose Construction of Bellingham to gut his bathroom and redesign it with grab bars and a comfort-height toilet. Lind also had his carpeting pulled up to expose the wood floors, and he’s working with Rose to map out a kitchen remodel for the future.

Lind’s goal to stay in his home as long as possible is the same goal for many aging homeowners today, even those in good health. Most people want to maintain their independence. To do that, they need to avoid disastrous health problems, such as broken bones from falls, that can force them to live part or the rest of their life in a care facility.

Falls are the leading cause of injuries, both fatal and non-fatal, among seniors, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Every year, one out of three people older than 65 suffers a fall.

Along with making changes for themselves, homeowners also are making changes for elderly or ill family members who live with them.

BY DESIGN

Professional remodelers call the phenomenon “aging-in-place,” design that helps make a home easier to maintain and safer to get around for people as they grow older. Aging-in-place takes into account not only making a home more accessible, but also doing so with stylish materials and inventive design, so the house still looks like a home, not an institution.

According to a recent AARP survey, at least 74 percent of people 50 and older want to stay in their current home for the rest of their lives. But in a quick assessment of their home, many people see steep stairs, difficult entries, and narrow doorways that would be difficult or potentially dangerous as they deal with illness or the simple challenges of aging.

Cindi Landreth, vice president and residential designer at Adaptations Design Studio and A-1 Builders, in Bellingham, says the company has seen a “significant uptick” of interest in their services for aging-in-place. She says the issues are complex, because each home and each person’s health concerns and remodeling budget differ.

Landreth says clients don’t always come in looking for an aging-in-place design, but as she finds out how long they plan to be in their home, she makes suggestions about what is sometimes a sensitive topic. For some, one option is moving from a large home into a smaller one. Other people need space for a caretaker to stay, or need to bring a washer and dryer onto the home’s main level.

In Bellingham, Landreth says real estate agents have told her it’s not always easy to find homes that meet their aging clients’ needs. And with many retirees moving to Whatcom County in search of a home where they can spend the rest of their lives, aging-in-place remodeling makes sense for many homeowners, no matter their current age.

“If someone isn’t interested in staying in their home long-term but are interested in investing in their home for resale, we would find that easy to bring up,” Landreth says. “Making a home accessible can be a great investment.”

DyLon McClary, the owner of Rose Construction, says about 20 percent of his clients incorporate aging-in-place into their remodel. He says safety is at the forefront, so the bathroom, potentially the slipperiest room, is usually the first to be remodeled.

McClary has also widened doorways to accommodate walkers and wheelchairs, and added special hinges that enable a door to open completely, providing an extra inch or two of width.

He says interior design principals remain part of aging-in-place. For example, contrasting colors for a kitchen countertop and cabinet can help people with declining vision see the edges of the counters when they set down food.

McClary says that even with bathroom remodels for younger clients, he asks if they want grab bars. If the homeowners say no, McClary suggests that they install the blocking behind the drywall, so it’s there as they age or if they sell their home to an older person. He provides diagrams so they can find it in the future.

Redesigning entries to limit the number of steps up into the home is another common change. Ideally, the entrance should be flat, to remove trip hazards, but that’s not always possible. McClary says changing an entry doorway from a garage, or even the back door, is sometimes easier, cheaper and more attractive than a long ramp in the front of the home.

Many aging-in-place changes are simple and easy, he says, such as switching doorknobs to easy-to-use levers, maximizing wattage in light fixtures, and adding more lighting throughout the home.

The simple addition of a handheld shower can make bathing easier when sitting down, and make cleaning the tub or shower easier. Smooth-sided toilets likewise make cleaning easier as people grow old, McClary says.

LONG-TERM PLAN

Lind says he picked McClary not for his aging-in-place certifications but because he listened to his needs and worked within his budget.

The work started because of Lind’s allergy problem. Although the source of his allergy remains a mystery, Lind wanted to remove drywall in his bathroom that had some mold. He then expanded the plan to change his bathroom to accommodate him as his Parkinson’s progresses.

The grab bars are made of patterned metal, instead of smooth, which provides a better grip when he’s exiting the shower. He considered a walk-in shower, a typical of aging-in-place element, but with only one bathroom in the home he decided to keep the tub for the home’s resale value.

McClary says it’s best to talk through options with homeowners, so a remodel makes the home safe for its current owners but doesn’t lower the home’s value.

Lind says that since his health problems have come on at a relatively young age, he wanted to make sure he planned for what lies ahead.

A few years ago, he helped his great-aunt move into a nursing home because she could no longer live safely alone. He says that during the first three days in the nursing home, she asked him when she would be able to return home.

With that difficult time in mind, Lind hopes his investment in his home now will pay off with greater independence in the years to come.

HELP WITH HOMES

Low-income homeowners can receive assistance and zero-interest loans from a variety of public and private agencies to pay for home modifications. For details, contact the Northwest Regional Council, 360-676-6749 or nwrcwa.org.

The council also has publications about aging-in-place and how to make simple changes in your home for safety.

Ericka Pizzillo Cohen is an Ohio-based freelance writer and former reporter for The Bellingham Herald.

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