Building, adapting homes for aging population



From width of doorways to styles of doorknobs, design and remodeling of homes for an aging population has drawn notice from the construction industry since the 1990s.

Though the topic is uncomfortable for many to talk about, surveys have found many seniors or soon-to-be seniors want to stay in their homes as they age. According to AARP, that’s 89%. The idea of having to move to a new living space to accommodate the issues of health or just slowing down is just not palatable.

Incorporating concepts of “universal design,” what became known as “aging in place” became an industry designation. It is no longer only about the lifestyle needs of the elderly but all who want to stay in their homes when health and mobility issues are directing them toward care facilities.

National Association of Homebuilders began offering certification for aging-in-place specialists, called CAPS. The organization wanted to emphasize home designs and redesigns that were not only accessible and safe but also aesthetically pleasing.

The newest member of Maricopa’s Age-Friendly Maricopa Advisory Committee said he does not think the talk about aging-in-place precepts among architects and builders has transitioned into action well enough.

“It turns out we have one of the few homes in Province that has adequate doors, adequate hallways,” Ron Smith said. “We have grab bars. I didn’t want them installed; I just wanted the blocking in the walls. I just wanted to be ready.”

Though he has spoken to several residential developers, the aging-in-place design options remain limited. He finds that frustrating, because the U.S. Census predicts the number of older adults (code for age 65 and up) will double by 2060 and surpass the number of children being born.

“It’s marketing,” Smith said. “People buying these homes are coming in for a lifestyle. You don’t advertise grab bars to them.”

Lennar introduced a Legacy Series of designs for age 55 and up in Texas communities, using aging-in-place guidelines. D.R. Horton introduced its Freedom brand in other parts of Arizona. Meritage and K. Hovnanian have 55+ communities.

The Smiths are not elderly or impaired. Like many, however, Ron and Helen had to meet the needs of their own aging parents. Seeing the issues that came up was enlightening.

Hall width, flooring, paint color, counter height and especially grab bars became topics of discussion.

“That’s the one thing that really annoys people are grab bars,” she said. They often look institutional and are also a physical reminder that age is creeping on. Too often a fall is the wakeup call.

“Until it happens to you, it’s not real,” he said.

[quote_box_right]National Institute on Aging Remodeling Tips
1. Don’t use area rugs and check that all carpets are fixed firmly to the floor.
2. Install grab bars near toilets and in the tub or shower.
3. Replace handles on doors or faucets with ones that are comfortable to use.
4. Install a ramp with handrails to the front door.
5. Reduce fall hazards: place no-slip strips or non-skid mats on tile and wood floors or surfaces that may get wet.
6. Place light switches at the top and bottom of stairs and remember to turn on nightlights.[/quote_box_right]


While building a home for accessibility costs more than a standard home, retrofitting a home to meet mobility needs often costs much more but is still less expensive than moving into a care facility.

“What aging in place is all about is educating the homebuyer,  so that they understand what they may face and be prepared for it,” Ron Smith said. “You can build a house initially to have the right footprint so you can have wide doors, wide hallways when you frame it.”

The NAHB Aging in Place checklist includes 36-inch-wide doors and hallways, non-slip flooring, lever handles on doors and faucets, low- or no-threshold doorways, low windows with lots of natural light and 5-by-5-foot turn space in main rooms.

Smith said the aging-in-place concept inspired him to leave his work as a college administration IT and go back to school 15 years ago to learn more about universal design and aging in place. For about five years, he worked for an interior design company that did cabinetry. With the recession, he returned to college admin for more than three years before retiring in 2014.

“A lot of my work was in planning,” he said. “I’m one of those guys that like to think down the road. I love architecture and building and construction. All these things were coming together.”

Aging-in-place concepts go beyond adapting a home to age-related limitations to “universal design.” Unexpected health crises or physical injury can change a lifestyle in a second for anyone at any age and put surprising demands on your home.

This article appears in the February issue of InMaricopa