By Lynne Snierson
illustration by victoria marcelino
For some, assisted living facilities and continuing care retirement communities â€” and the benefits and conveniences they offer â€” are the right choice. But itâ€™s not the right fit for everyone, and for many thereâ€™s just no place like home.
Thatâ€™s why renovating existing homes to make them into safe, comfortable and convenient residences for seniors over the long term is one of the hottest segments of the home construction and remodeling industry.
â€śThis is huge and itâ€™s a very big deal,â€ť says Greg Rehm, CGR, CAPS, CGP, the owner of Liberty Hill Construction LLC in Bedford. â€śWeâ€™re seeing a lot of projects in this category and the need keeps growing and growing.â€ť
Itâ€™s called aging in place or sometimes home-based living, independent living or preferred aging living. No matter the semantics, a recent AARP survey found that 90 percent of Americans aged 50-plus want to remain in their own homes even if they start to need some day-to-day assistance with basic living tasks.
â€śThe single most important element driving this big movement of aging in place is: Who doesnâ€™t want to stay in their home?â€ť says Rehm, whose CAPS designation means he is certified as an aging-in-place specialist from the National Association of Home Builders.
The US Census Bureau projects that by 2030 there will be about 71.5 million citizens over the age of 65, which is double the number of what it was in 2000. Consider that New Hampshire is the second-fastest aging state in the nation.
That sets up the scenario for an awful lot of older people living in much older homes. In this case, older isnâ€™t wiser.
Smart homes now incorporate what the building trade terms universal design, which is the design of environments to satisfy the needs of many types of users. Universal design allows aging owners to stay put, but their needs are many. Moreover, as their physical and mental capabilities lessen, those needs will change.
With increased age comes reduced vision and hearing. Muscle strength, mobility and endurance are decreased, as is the capacity for mental processing and decision-making. What increases are balance issues and the risk of falls.
â€śWe do a lot of this type of remodeling for people who want to age in place gracefully, and we think about all those things,â€ť says Russ Collins, who owns Home Innovations Corp. in Epping and is a member of the National Association of Home Builders.Â
â€śThink about the little things that make a big difference, like making sure floors are all the same height so there are no trip points as you go from a tile floor to a wood floor,â€ť says Collins. â€śWe make sure there are no bumps and nothing to catch your feet if youâ€™re not picking them up as high as you used to. Everything is smooth. We also use a lot of the new, nonslip flooring,â€ť he adds.
There are many improvements that can make a big difference, including widening doorways to accommodate wheelchairs, removing walls to create open space, replacing entry and exit steps with ramps, changing countertop height in kitchens and bathrooms, replacing door knobs with lever handles, installing better lighting and task lighting, switching to open and easily accessible shelving, replacing old appliances with state-of-the-art models that come with safety measures, and installing roll-in showers and walk-in bath tubs.
â€śThe topic isnâ€™t very sexy,â€ť says Rehm, mostly because people incorrectly picture an institutional setting that reminds them of hospitals rather than a home. But today, he adds, there are better products that are both functional and beautiful.
One of the biggest segments of this booming market is the creation of a first-floor master bedroom and en suite bath. But what if thatâ€™s not what the owner of a multilevel home wants?
Elevators are an option, says Collins, but if an elevator isnâ€™t in your budget, he suggests a smaller dumbwaiter for food or other items so you donâ€™t have to carry trays up flights of stairs.
The other big trend in the industry is adding an in-law apartment, now also called an accessory dwelling, to the home of a family member or to the home of the senior as a residence for a live-in caregiver.
While that can be an expensive project, compare it to the expense of moving to an assisted living facility or continuing care retirement community with an initial buy-in and then monthly fees and charges. Aging in place often makes economic sense.
But the experts advise itâ€™s best to start planning for your golden years even if youâ€™re not close to them yet.
â€śEven if youâ€™re in your mid-50s, have a plan,â€ť says Rehm. â€śIf you want to stay in your home and intend to age in place, you want it to look good and be safe and functional. Itâ€™s not too early to plan for the future. This stuff is really good stuff that helps people. And it can look great too.â€ť
Even better, it has a positive effect on quality of life.
â€śItâ€™s fun and itâ€™s gratifying to do this for people. I get to feel good about helping people stay in their homes and enjoy their lives. Weâ€™re doing something that adds value to their lives,â€ť Collins says.
There are currently 25 builders and remodelers in the Granite State who have achieved CAPS certification from the National Association of Home builders. To find them, visit nahb.org/capsdirectory or check out the website for the New Hampshire Home Builders Association at nhhba.com.
However, itâ€™s likely that when you bought your house, it was designed for a much younger and more able-bodied version of you. Home builders and remodelers, especially those who have achieved certification as an aging-in-place specialist (CAPS), work wonders when it comes to rehabilitating, redesigning and restoring dwellings, but the projects tend to be both intensive and expensive.
Here are 10 tips from AARPâ€™s Home Fit Guide for initial easy fixes to make your space safer prior to tackling a major renovation:
1. Install handrails on both sides of all steps (inside and outside).
2. Secure all carpets and area rugs with double-sided tape.
3. Install easy-to-grasp handles for all drawers and cabinet doors.
4. Use brighter bulbs that do not produce excessive glare in all settings.
5. Install nightlights in all areas of night activity.
6. Add reflective, nonslip tape on all noncarpeted stairs.
7. Install lever handles on all doors.
8. Place a bench near entrances for setting down purchases and resting.
9. Install closet lights, as well as adjustable, pull-down rods and shelves.
10. Install rocker light switches; consider illuminated ones in select areas.