Is there really no need?

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Ron Smith Maricopa
Ron Smith

Happy New Year everyone! I’m hoping that many of you spent some quality time with family and friends.

There are many components to aging well. The final third of our life can be a very rewarding opportunity to focus on our interests/hobbies or even explore different directions.

Surveys have repeatedly identified a strong desire by the majority of people to live in their current homes as long as possible as they age. This choice is becoming more possible with the growth of the home care industry that can provide a wide range of services.

Although increased support services help to age in place, the housing industry continues to build houses that are not readily adaptable to changing needs. Even 55+ communities tend not to include the features that make a house adaptable. They promote the lifestyle amenities, such as, pickle ball courts, tennis courts, spas, pools, workout rooms, etc. that are desired by home buyers, but they do not provide the value-added adaptability features needed in the physical structure of the home.

Retirement starts out well, but the creaking joints, knee replacements, trips and falls, walkers, knee scooters and wheelchairs come along faster than we think. Vision starts to change. Visiting friends who may be experiencing the effects of aging can’t easily get through our front door or down our halls. Initially these are infrequent inconveniences, but eventually the “crisis” comes. The crisis was likely generated by a fall, since falls are the leading source of injury or death to seniors.

Now, simple mobility around your home is a big problem. Your physical therapist recommends a walker or a wheel chair. Hopefully, you have a zero-step threshold at your front entrance and your wheel chair can pass through all of your doorways. Chances are good that you don’t have these accessibility features and will have to consider modifications to your home. Features that could have been built into your house at the time of construction at a small cost will now cost big dollars. In 55+ communities, this failure to anticipate future needs is almost criminal because we know that the need for such accommodations is inevitable.

A design concept called Universal Design was introduced nearly 30 years ago. Universal Design creates promotes accessibility and usability, allowing people with all levels of ability to live independently to the greatest extent possible. Using these concepts, some builders started designing homes that could easily address changing needs when they occurred.

If designed properly, all doorways and hallways can be comfortably navigated. Bathrooms will be slightly more spacious and make wheelchair access a breeze. Flat thresholds can be easily incorporated into the initial design. Changes made to framing are much more difficult in a retrofit and are a major expense that could have been avoided. Many other small changes, such as the placement of light switches and outlets or improved lighting are also easily done at the time of construction.

Interestingly, home builders in Arizona say there is no need to incorporate these features because there is no demand from their home buyers. Why might this be true? First, planning for the future is not a natural activity for many people. Second, at the time of retirement, our focus is generally on all the exciting plans that we have made. Unless you have had a prior experience with a family member who has had to live with accessibility and mobility issues, you are unlikely to consider such potential issues when buying your own retirement home.

Hopefully, our understanding of the benefits of living in a more adaptable home will encourage home builders in the future to offer a better designed product for our community. Remember, 10,000 people turn 65 every day!

Ron Smith is an aging-in-place advocate, a Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) and a Certified Living in Place Professional (CLIPP).

This column was first published in the January edition of InMaricopa magazine.