Dave Carty
Dave Carty

Your Home For Life

Making your house accessible for the golden years.

When Susan Womble’s husband became ill, she was faced with a choice: Move herself and her wheelchair-bound husband to assisted living, or stay in their Maryland home. She decided to stay—but doing so meant a big change in living arrangements.

Like most homes, the Womble’s residence hadn’t been built with senior or handicapped access in mind. So she contacted a Certified Aging In Place (CAPS) contractor, Louis Tennenbaum, for advice. After an extensive question and answer session, Tennenbaum went to work. Among other improvements, he widened the hallways, made a step-free entrance and installed a barrier-free shower.
"It’s just wonderful," Womble says. "It doesn’t look like an institutional house in any way." In fact, she was so delighted with the improvements that when her husband passed away, she decided to stay put—for the rest of her life.

The CAPS certification, a National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) designation, is a title earned by contractors and designers who have passed a two-day course in the principles of universal design. In a nutshell, universal design principles encompass home modifications that remove access barriers to seniors (as well as the handicapped). It is an issue that is becoming critical for more and more Americans. According to the U.S. government's Agency on Aging, 70 million baby boomers will be heading into retirement soon, and if there's one thing this vast assortment of individuals has in common—healthy and disabled alike—it's an aversion to nursing homes.

The CAPS program is new, but the ideas go way back. Tennenbaum, who is on the CAPS board of governors, has been building easy-to-access homes since the early 1990s.

"You have to look at it like this," he says. "What’s the competition for aging in place? It’s assisted living." And it is assisted living and retirement homes, studies show, that an overwhelming number of seniors don’t want. Remaining in your own home "is about choice, is about dignity, is about independence and the values people hold dear," Tennenbaum says.

Fixing the problems

Although the typical home has dozens of areas where improvements can dramatically improve accessibility, three primary activities cause the most problems: 1) getting in and out of the house, 2) getting in and out of the bathroom, and 3) getting up and down stairs. In the long run, it’s probably easier to build a home from the ground up that already includes stepless entryways, one-level living areas, wide hallways, and curb-free shower stalls. But if that isn’t an option, even the modification of favorite nooks and crannies can have an immediate and welcome impact on homeowners.

"One of the things that’s really important to my clients is how they enjoy the outdoors," Tennenbaum says. "As they change, they want to know if they’ll still have good access to their patio, their garden … places that really matter to a lot of people."

Retirees are asking the same questions. Across the country, seniors are taking the principles of universal design to heart and hiring contractors to transform their homes. One of those contractors is longtime Costco member Greg Miedema of Tucson, Arizona.

Miedema doesn’t like the idea of senior-only designations. "The more we do this, the less a residence should look like a senior friendly house and the more it should become simply a friendly house," he says. "For instance, bathtubs are great until you’re about 10 years old, and then no one uses them anymore. So we do a lot of tub-to-shower conversions. You also don’t need a step to get outside the house—all you need is enough slope to drain away the water."

Universal design is … universal

"It’s got to work for everybody," says CAPS consultant Maria Henke a Costco member in Los Angeles. "There’s nothing about this [universal design] that should stand out as looking institutional or medical. Henke believes in homes with a high degree of "visitability", a term that describes houses that are accessible to anyone—seniors, those with disabilities or anyone else who may want a home that’s easy to get around in.

True, most remodeling jobs are an expensive proposition, but Henke claims that low cost, simple options can go a long ways toward making life on the home front less of an obstacle course. "For example, the solar lights they sell at Costco are great for illuminating entrances," she says. "Those are things that you may not necessarily think of as a home modification device, but they are. And they’re very inexpensive."

Ultimately, homeowners should decide if their home is where they want to spend the rest of their lives. If it is, the next step might be to talk to a CAPS certified designer, architect, contractor or, in some cases, an occupational therapist, all of whom can outline home modifications that will ease the transition into long-term retirement.

After all, Miedema says, "your home shouldn’t just be senior friendly, it should be friendly across the board."

Your Home for Life


* Welcome Home – www.bsu.edu/wellcomehome/ A Web site with pages of information on home improvements for seniors and the disabled.

* The Helpful Home – A CD distributed by the Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Center, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA: (213) 740-1364; fax (213) 740-7069

* National Association of Homebuilders, www.NAHB.org. Type "CAPS" in the search box for information on the CAPS program and aging-in-place topics.

Low Cost Modifications

Stair-free entryways, curb-free showers and open floor plans are projects that take time and money. But there are plenty of inexpensive things you can do to make your home retirement friendly.

"Look for assistive devices," Maria Henke says. "They have light switch adapters that make them easier to grip. And if your doors are too narrow, you can expand them by " with an offset hinge – maybe fifteen bucks at a hardware store. We also suggest lever door handles (easier to grasp), and, if you really need them, remote-control locks for doors. You can also get little flashlights for your keychain if you’re having trouble seeing the lock."

The CAPS pros interviewed for this story suggested a dozen or so other quick fixes. Lighting under kitchen cabinets is simple to install and will provide better illumination for cooking chores. Non-slip padding under throw rugs will keep them from kicking out underfoot, and the simple addition of a stool in the kitchen or utility room will give a homeowner a place to sit and make chores that much easier to accomplish. Sandpaper-textured tape applied to stairs will prevent slips, and nightlights will prevent bumps in the night. Finally, perhaps the most popular suggestion among the experts was grab bars. Grab bars in the bathroom, shower and bedroom will make getting in, up and out easier for those who need a little boost.

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