By Betty Berry, Tuesday, March 8, 2011
QUESTION: Our population is aging — that is being made very clear with the first of the baby boomers now reaching 65. Over the past years I have heard about designing homes for the older population and wonder if anyone is taking that seriously. Can you provide some issues that must be considered when building or remodeling for the aging population?
A: There are many issues that should be considered when building for this aging population. But rather than have a novice in this field talk about what must be considered, I turned to an architect-designer who I know very well and asked him to respond to your question. Here is what he had to say:
Age changes many things, even where we live. As age takes its toll, as abilities grow more limited, homes that have been accommodating havens for decades grow less friendly.
Doorknobs and cabinets become harder for arthritic hands to open. Doors and hallways are too narrow for wheelchairs. Climbing stairs with high, narrow steps becomes an ordeal. Hauling wet towels from a top-loading washer can demand a strength no longer available.
The usual home today is built for the average, able-bodied male, which comprises only about 8 percent of the population. They are built for people who can run up and down stairs and who have no problems. But as America’s aged population grows larger, designers and builders are rethinking that approach.
They are paying more attention to “aging-in-place” or universal-design homes accessible for everyone regardless of age or physical capacity.
People older than 60 comprise about one third of the population. In the next 10 to 15 years, people older than 65 will make up 20 to 25 percent of the population. Universal-design homes will work for young couples raising children and later, when they are older and their brood has grown and gone, they can still live in and enjoy the same home.
The effects of aging must be taken into account. Most homes are two stories with bedrooms on the second floor. If a person, young or old, has an injury or a disability, it is difficult, if not impossible, to climb the stairs. Where will they sleep, in the living room? An all-on-one-floor home makes everything accessible to all who live there.
Most stairs are too steep to easily climb and too narrow coming down. Stair treads should be lower and wider. Bathrooms are usually the most inaccessible rooms. The doors are too narrow for wheelchairs to enter, and toilets lack side access and steadying grab bars. Correcting these and other shortcomings allow aging homeowners to stay longer in their homes and not be forced into a nursing home or care facility.
Typical modifications to a home to make it accessible for seniors include adding ramps in place of stairs, refitting bathrooms using nonslip finishes for floors, widening doorways and changing lighting. An 80-year-old person needs about five times as much light to read as a 20-year-old.
The cost of such retrofits can be high, but building such features into homes in the first place is much less expensive, increasing the overall cost by only about 1 percent.
Well, I think his answer is much better than one I could have provided and gives us a few things to think about. Whether we are redoing a home we are currently living in or planning on a move and looking for a new house, we should consider what we are capable of doing. Let’s hope we can all age in place in a home that is comfortable and familiar to us.
— Betty Berry is a senior advocate for Senior Concerns. The advocates are at the Goebel Senior Adult Center, 1385 E. Janss Road, Thousand Oaks, CA 91362. Call 495-6250 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org (please include your telephone number). You are invited to submit questions on senior issues.