Accidents happen. So does aging. How ready is your home to accommodate either? How ready does it need to be?
Your answer might depend on your life experiences and expectations, say local renovators polled on the topic. While older homeowners — or those with elder parents wanting to stay put — might be more aware of looming accessibility and aging challenges, many of us have that awareness thrust upon us — at any age — by circumstance.
Be it an accident, a debilitating disease or the realities of time passing, “The way life goes, something will come your way,” says Dan Bawden of Legal Eagle Contractors, an expert in universal design and aging in place techniques who teaches the certification classes for Greater Houston Builders Association (GHBA).
Three situations prompt the bulk of these adaptive use projects, Bawden observes.
First there are the “planners,” who anticipate future needs, whether for themselves or their aging parents.
Next are those who have learned they will need help in the near term, though not immediately, such as with a progressive disease.
And then there are those who are in the midst of a traumatic health event and trying to resolve access and space usage because a loved one will be coming home soon from the hospital. Need an example? You’re in a wheelchair with your broken leg in a full cast and elevated. How will you even enter the house? The bathroom?
Such was the case for a couple who was already considering a more accommodating master bathroom for their later years when flooding made their future redo immediately imperative.
Will Cole of Divine Restoration and a board member of the GHBA Remodelers Council handled that project (which included more than just the bathroom). As redesigned, the original master bath’s ‘60s style tub-and-toilet space captured the adjacent walk-in closet for an oversized shower and roomy open area, both able to manage any future wheelchair maneuvering, with or without a caregiver. The ample shower now contains bench seating at one end near a handheld shower, a conventional shower head, and a variety of grab bars, towel hooks and product shelving at standing and sitting height.
Importantly, Cole says, beneath the tilework and pony walls is structural blocking able to secure any future ADA add-ons, if ever needed. Another anti-slip design element was the flooring choice. Smaller tiles have more grout and help reduce the slick surfaces, he explains. And while the vanity’s current design has storage beneath the sink, a modification behind the cabinet doors would enable rolling up to it when needed, the homeowner says.
She also points to how access to the bathroom is now via a relocated and much-enlarged doorway. Using a pair of doors instead of a single whoppingly wide one reduced the amount of wall space affected when they’re open. The lighting, meanwhile, is bright and varied because more light is more necessary as eyes age.
One unexpected benefit of the new bathroom’s design and fittings is how easy it is now to wash the dog, she says. Using the tub in other bathroom was getting to be a challenge.
In Candlelight Estates, another of Cole’s clients has converted the first floor’s wing of two bedrooms and bathroom into a master suite that used the space of one bedroom for a huge closet and bathroom expansion with all the bells and whistles of universal design to enjoy — now and in the future.
Many modifications have applications beyond just aging-in-place, Cole notes. “Who doesn’t want a bigger, more accessible bathroom?”
Easy Tweaks vs. Bigger Overhauls
For clients designing or tweaking homes for long-term living, Cole recommends such elements as wider doors, larger turning spaces (particularly in the kitchen and bathrooms), eye level shelving in closets, brighter lighting, roll out shelving in lower kitchen cabinets, and blocking beneath the wallboard for future grab bars.
Bawden also suggests a few easy alterations: lever-style door knobs, swing clear hinges for doors to completely open up narrow doorways, and automatic door bottom (retractable gasket seals) that do the work of thresholds where there’s need of a level entry.
Make sure the entry – which starts at the curb – has good lighting and is clear of tripping hazards, adds Mark Florenz, project designer at Legal Eagle.
Meanwhile, if the floor plan has one of the step-down or step-up living rooms of yesteryear, use changes in color or texture to highlight that change in elevation, the renovators say. Better yet, get the flooring all one level.
Fortunately, better technology, more products and industry checklists for aging in place are available, such as this one from the National Home Builders Association .
When there’s opportunity for thoughtful design from the get-go, however, there can be savings.
“It takes the emergency out of the picture,” Bawden says.
As an example, one of the more costly projects is adding an in-home elevator. In homes that had previously stacked closets upstairs and down in case the space might someday become the shaft, adding the equipment runs about 2.5 times less than retrofitting such a system, he estimates.
And while altering door frame width is a common project, it can be more challenging than you think, he says. A typical powder room door is 24 inches wide. A walker or wheelchair needs at least 32 inches in width. Do the math.
“There is no such thing as a door stretcher,” he notes. To widen a door frame can involve more than you think because the spaces are small and components integrated. Framing changes usually affect cabinets, countertops, light switches and flooring as well as the door jamb and header. So, it’s not a $300 fix, he says, more like $2,000.
Easing That Conversation
For adult children, who are often the ones directing or deciding home modifications for their parents, adding aging-in-place design considerations can be an exercise less about what is available and doable than about getting elders on board.
Bawden, who has helped adult children help their alterations-resistant parents, offers an approach: “…Tell the story about other families who have benefited from these practical home modifications. Explain that the parents resisted too, but when these helpful features were installed, they loved them and started using them immediately.”
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