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Aging in Place with Style

Count on the Baby Boomers to do it again. Rapidly approaching their twilight years, they are redefining yet another phase of their lives. And they are not about to “go gentle into that good night,” to borrow a phrase from that oft-recited Dylan Thomas poem.
Although determined to retain their youthfulness forever, Boomers, who are turning 65 at the rate of 1 every 10 seconds, are beginning to feel the frailties of aging. Research from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shows most Americans of that age and older have at least one chronic condition, and many have multiple conditions. Like generations who preceded them, Boomers prefer to grow old in their own residences rather than in healthcare settings. But unlike earlier generations, who often were content to “make do,” they reject the institutional trappings that might simplify negotiating a floor plan. Raised toilet seats or chrome grab bars? A chairlift? 
“We are a very vain generation,” says architect and general contractor Michael Menn, who places himself in that demographic. He also is a national director and Certified Aging-In-Place Specialist for the National Association of Home Builders.
“Nobody wants obvious signs that say I have a disability or I am limited to doing certain things,” says architect Heidi Dahle of Worn Jerabek Architects in Chicago.
Another Boomer trait is that most aren’t going very far. Any hopes of cashing in on the real estate bubble of the early 2000s and retiring to exotic locales have been dashed by the uncertain economy of late. They’ll be working as long as can.
“Our generation understands their houses have depreciated to the point where they will not get big money out of them,” says Menn. “They’ve decided to stay and change the three or four rooms they spend the most time in to get pleasure and use from them for the next 10 or 15 or more years.”
That trend is further spurred by a health care system that sends patients home earlier and earlier to recuperate, adds Dahle.
If you are a Boomer, just how you will transform your surroundings depends in part on your vision of the future. Perhaps you have no current limitations but are merely thinking ahead. Perhaps you have a progressive condition that is bound to worsen. Or perhaps an emergency dictates fast action. The more time you have, the more thoughtful your preparation can be.
One approach is Universal Design, defined as the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, regardless of age or ability, to the greatest extent possible. Another is Aging-in-Place, which customizes your living environment to what is happening to you, either now or in days ahead. The two approaches often overlap. Increasingly available are products and features that not only promote livability but also are handsome and unobtrusive. Some, like the newest iteration of grab bars have been borrowed from the institutional handbook but jazzed up to resemble sculptural works. Others, like elevators and remote-controlled window treatments, first appeared in luxury homes and are now mainstream.
“Since the adoption of the Americans with Disabilities Act, more attention has been paid to this subset of society, and the marketplace is catching up with the demand now,” says architect Steven Montgomery of Harley Ellis Devereaux in Chicago.
Dahle and Montgomery are co-chairs of the American Institute of Architects Chicago Design for Aging Knowledge Community.
Here’s yet another consideration: Boomers will be the first generation of seniors to embrace technology and gadgetry. They may not be as proficient as the average 12-year-old, but they’ve come a long way since figuring out how to program VCRs in the 1980s.
“Universal controls are all the rage,” says Anna Marks, senior designer and principal at Interior Atelier in Chicago. “One control pad operates everything—television, music, speakers, alarm system and more, so you don’t have to run through the house. You can organize it to turn all the lights on or off, or just in certain areas.” Large-format devices offer big screens and buttons that are easier to see and feel, she adds.
Also from the world of high-tech are biometric locking systems, which add security without fumbling for keys. “They read your fingerprint or your face or your eye, know it’s you, the owner of the house, and unlocks the door,” Marks says.
When designing for yonder years, focus your efforts on the kitchen and master bath. These rooms are not only important activity areas,  but also sites where accidents are most likely to occur. In bathrooms, Menn advises reaching higher to create greater ergonomic ease. Install vanity tops at 36 inches rather than the 30-inch standard, and “comfort height” toilets that are a couple inches taller than the norm.
Curb-less shower stalls have no threshold to step over—the pitched floor guides water toward the drain. Also called zero-threshold showers, they are trendy in upscale homes but practical for aging joints and wheelchair roll-ins, says Marks. Reverse the bathroom door so it swings out into the hallway, Dahle recommends. Then, if someone inside falls, a responder can more easily gain access and provide assistance.
Today’s kitchen conveniences are designed—and disguised—to reduce both stooping and fine motor skills, says Montgomery. Among them are refrigerator and dishwasher drawers and wall-mounted ovens, which often are built into the cabinetry for a customized, seamless appearance. Levered hardware and tap-on, tap-off faucets require little manual effort.
For many people, visual acuity lessens over the years, sometimes so gradually it isn’t always noticed. Use color and shade variations to delineate edges. For one example, kitchen countertops should contrast with the color of the floor. For another, if the toilet is white, paint the wall behind it a color so it stands out. “Increase light levels, but don’t have exposed light bulbs,” said Dahle. “They create hot-spots and can hurt the eyes if you look directly at them.” 
Additional recommendations from Marks: Keep your heirloom dining table, but replace heavy chairs. A cork floor in the kitchen is softer than hardwood or ceramic tile for home chefs with ache-y hips and knees. Replace thresholds with low-profile edging for a smoother wheelchair glide. Install a heated sidewalk between driveway and front door to avoid falls on ice and snow.
For even more ideas, the NAHB website has an Aging in Place Remodeling Checklist of features to consider (http://bit.ly/Zv048K).      
The wide array of options and price points translates to solutions for everyone. “People want to stay in their living environments because of the comfort it brings,” says Menn. “Not everyone can afford that wireless system, but a large-grip can opener might make the day a little easier on someone who has arthritis in their hands. And that’s a good thing.”

Published: April 15, 2013
Issue: Spring 2013 Issue