Aging In Place

By Vicky Katz Whitaker

November 20, 2009 5 min read

Those stairs you ran up so quickly at 40 can be depressingly steep at 70. And then there's the pain that wafts through your wrist and fingers every time you turn on the faucet or twist a doorknob.

Maybe you should take up that offer to move in with your children.

Then again, maybe not.

Many seniors can "age in place," the experts say, provided they are willing to modify their homes to recognize and meet the physical challenges associated with growing older. In fact, the earlier you think about making those changes the less likely you are to need to face a decision on downsizing or moving to a senior care community or to be shuffled into makeshift living quarters with relatives.

"Word has gotten out to the boomers," says James Joseph Pirkl, one of the millions of Americans born in the post-World War II baby boom who are now in their 50s or 60s. Pirkl, an internationally respected design consultant for the 50-plus market, calls it "an evolution," one that is fueling greater interest in universal design, a method of remodeling or building homes to accommodate those who want to remain in their homes even as they develop age-related ailments. Builders, home remodelers and designers are paying attention, he says. The perceptions of homeowners in their late 30s and 40s are shifting, too.

The "silver market" explosion reflects the country's changing demographics. In the late 1930s, there were fewer than 7 million older Americans. By 2004, more than 3.5 million boomers turned 55, and by 2012, there will be more than 100 million Americans age 50 or older.

Pirkl, a professor emeritus of industrial design and past chairman of the department of design at Syracuse University, serves as executive director of Transgenerational Design Matters, an organization that works with builders, designers, academic institutions and public and private agencies to create products and shape environments compatible with the physical and sensory impairments associated with growing old. Pirkl believes the design community "carries a pivotal responsibility" in shaping the next generation of "human-centered design" in homes, products and the environment.

"People are becoming more educated about home design," says Warner McConaughey, whose Atlanta-based home remodeling company, HammerSmith, has won dozens of local, state, regional and national awards for design and renovation excellence. McConaughey says the Internet has fueled homeowner interest in building and remodeling with an eye on changing needs as they grow older. The master bedroom, he says, is one example of this sea change in thinking, its traditional second-floor placement fading in favor of a location on the first floor to eliminate the need to walk up a flight of stairs. Wider halls, better lighting, storage to eliminate clutter, and multipurpose rooms reflect the universal design theme that can make a home livable "at any stage of life," McConaughey says.

Of course, not all seniors have the option of redoing their homes or building anew. Moving in with family may be the only option for those whose finances or health preclude remodeling, relocating to retirement communities, or going to assisted living centers. In some cases, increases in crime, neighborhood blight and lack of transportation are overriding factors.

If you're a homeowner contemplating altering or retrofitting your home to accommodate a parent who must move in with you, don't make hasty remodeling decisions, McConaughey warns, and pay attention to aesthetics.

"There's a sense that these things have to look ugly" and that you will take them off later, he says -- for example, a poorly designed wheelchair ramp or bathroom grab bar. Something as simple as changing a doorknob to a lever can be stylish, as well as effective, not only for an elderly parent but also for others in the family. "Retrofitting is not always about older people," he points out, noting that a levered door can be opened more easily with an elbow if you're carrying packages. Better lighting, storage to keep clutter out of your path, and rooms that have universal use, such as a playroom for children that can be converted for adult use at night, can go far to bridge generational gaps.

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