Aging in Place Comfortably and Stylishly
As more baby boomers move toward retirement, more and more are designing homes that will accommodate their needs even as they grow older and lose mobility.
They never wanted to call it retirement, but for Susan Farnsworth, Leigh Hough and Jean-Philippe Jomini, a throuple — a romantic partnership of three people — that has lived together as an intentional family for over 15 years, it felt important to get a head start on finding a home that would accommodate future needs for aging in place.
Three consultants in their mid-60s, they share a home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., but decided a few years ago to look for a second home in southern New England, where they have friends and family.
A string of open houses and home tours turned up nothing truly satisfactory. So on a whim, they checked out a “land for sale” sign during a day of driving around Guilford, Conn., and there it was: an unimproved 1.7 acre lot of restored tidal marsh that had the allure of ever-changing scenery, natural light and an array of wildlife.
They purchased the land for $320,000 in the summer of 2016. When it came to design, a few things were nonnegotiable: enough privacy to allow for plenty of windows, tidal marsh views, and an easily maintained home and yard that would also be eco-friendly.
Their individual wishes became diplomatic discussions — was there room for a putter-worthy workshop for woodworking and gardening needs? How about a kitchen garden? These made the cut, as did a small salt-chlorinated pool. But being able to live comfortably there as they grew older together was their primary concern.
“This is the first time we have worked for a three-person couple for whom gracious aging — of materials and occupants — was part of the discussion from the outset,” said Rustam Mehta, a founding partner of GRT Architects, the Brooklyn firm that designed the 3,300-square-foot house.
The one-story house embodies universal design principles that are also senior-friendly, like versatile open spaces, minimal stairs, and wider doorways and hallways. The three-bedroom home is also wheelchair accessible and barrier free — there are no steps or thresholds across the entire principal floor. And there’s not a tub in sight: all three bathrooms feature zero-threshold showers.
For the country’s swiftly growing older population, this safety-focused attention to detail is essential to healthy home life. More often than not, changes are hurriedly made in response to a fall, accident or medical diagnosis. The website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that for adults 65 years and older, $50 billion is spent annually on medical costs related to nonfatal fall injuries and $754 million is spent related to fatal falls.
As baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964 continue to age, the U.S. Census Bureau predicts that people over the age of 65 will outnumber those under the age of 18 as soon as 2034. To address the needs of this rapidly growing population, AARP encourages its members to carefully consider ways to make their homes places where they can comfortably and safely age in place.
These kinds of upgrades can start with simple things like installing task lighting in kitchens to accommodate fading eyesight and multi-height countertops to allow people of all abilities to both stand and sit while working in the kitchen, investing in nonslip tiles and grab bars in bathrooms, and relocating select electrical outlets to be 18-inches to 24-inches high, up from the more typical 12 inches off the floor to make them more accessible. Bigger changes can include enlarged doorways to allow for wheelchair access or a walker and adding ramps to eliminate stairs.
Dr. Rodney Harrell, the vice president for Family, Home and Community at AARP, says intentional planning to create an ideal space to age in place can be started at any time.
“When we’re not planning ahead we need to react quickly,” said Dr. Harrell, who added that the best homes integrate universal design elements that can accommodate life for aging, but also unexpected illness, injury or disability. “The vast majority of people want to stay in their homes as they age, and most homes in this country aren’t designed to allow that to happen.”
There are a growing number of resources that can help in this planning process.
AARP recently introduced HomeFit, a free augmented reality app on iOS that can scan a room and suggest improvements to help turn a house into a “lifelong home,” free from safety and mobility risks. It is an extension of the organization’s extensive HomeFit Guide, which is available online.
There are also certified aging-in-place specialists, a wide range of professionals including remodelers, designers, architects and occupational therapists, who can recommend modifications to help people live independently in their home. This designation was developed in 2002 by the National Association of Home Builders in collaboration with AARP and other experts. Specialists can be searched by state at nahb.org, which offers a three-day certification program.
Even the smallest safety updates can potentially be lifesaving.
Ted Porter, a co-chair for the Design for Aging Committee for the New York City chapter of the American Institute of Architects says the process of making an apartment or home aging-friendly can be relatively easy, inexpensive and done gradually over time.
Simple upgrades include professionally installing grab bars along long corridors and replacing toggle light switches with glow-in-the-dark rocker switches that are easier to turn on and off.
Mr. Porter also suggests increasing the output of available electric light sources by using larger wattage or lumen bulbs and recommends contrast between wall and floor colors, and between floor hues or finishes wherever height levels change.
Sharon Sherman, an interior designer from Wyckoff, N.J., often promotes design elements that are senior-friendly but also appropriate for residents of any age, even young couples. In recent projects, Ms. Sherman incorporated a pullout microwave drawer and dish drawers into a kitchen island, saving clients the effort of constantly reaching overhead.
Where balance and stability is a concern, wall oven units with French doors at eye level eliminate any need to lean over a hot oven door. Ms. Sherman also recommends induction stove tops for clients, especially useful for those with memory problems or small children. “As soon as the magnetic connection is broken, the heat disappears,” she said.
These ideas don’t need to be reserved just for older residents. “It’s a multigenerational consideration,” said Ms. Sherman. “Even kids can use touchless faucets.”
Retailers are also responding to the need for improved safety at home for the aging population and people with disabilities.
In early 2020, Lowe’s launched a line of room-specific merchandise online under the name “Accessible Home,” featuring items such as shower seats, adjustable bed rails and nonslip mats for the kitchen that are compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Home Depot also entered the accessibility market last year with “Independent Living,” a partnership program with National Seating and Mobility, which offers virtual consults and installation of products like stair lifts, wheelchair ramps and automatic door openers. Currently, the program operates in New Jersey and eight select cities including St. Louis, Dallas and Boston, with more stores planning to offer the service this year.
“Aging in place starts at birth,” said Florence C. Macauley, founder of AgeWise Home, a nonmedical consulting company that also provides concierge services to the elderly and people with disabilities in Washington D.C.
Ms. Macauley, an aging-in-place specialist and dementia practitioner with two decades of experience working with seniors as a physical therapy professional and advocate, launched her business in 2019 following abdominal surgery and weeks of strict medical orders not to lift, bend or walk stairs.
At the time, the elevator in her building was out of commission. Her sister flew in to assist her in her recovery, but the whole experience got Ms. Macauley, who is 42, thinking, “If I needed all this help, what would my elderly patients do?”
Ms. Macauley said that the pandemic exacerbated stress for families suddenly sheltering with older loved ones at home. Many, she said, were unprepared for the realities that came with caregiving. Even a basic set of stairs could quickly become a problem. One question she poses to every client: “In case of an emergency would you be able to get yourself and your loved ones safely out of the home?”
At a minimum, anyone considering their forever home should prioritize dwellings with limited steps, widened doorways, doors with lever handles, and elevator access, she said.
Equally important are your greater surroundings, said Ms. Macauley, who intentionally lives within walking distance from the Metro, a grocery store and the bank. “Aging in place isn’t just about an accessible home but also an accessible community.”
For some families, retrofitting an existing home isn’t a viable solution, so they have turned to accessory dwelling units, or A.D.U.s. Often called a “backyard cottage,” they are one way to facilitate multigenerational living on the same lot.
Single family homes with an A.D.U. have been especially coveted during the pandemic.
According to data supplied by Realtor.com, searches for homes with pre-existing A.D.U.s increased in the last year, through the end of April, and are outpacing the rest of the market. Despite a higher median listing price of $744,000, homes with A.D.U.s spend 35 days on the market, which is 21 fewer days than last year. (Non-A.D.U. homes are selling 15 days faster than last year.)
For Alice Savage, 74, a retired college professor and dean, a one-bedroom A.D.U. in the backyard of her daughter’s home in Portland, Ore. became even more of a haven when she received a cancer diagnosis last January.
Its cozy, manageable size has been a blessing, Ms. Savage said of her single-story 576-square-foot home, which was completed in late 2016 by Environs, a local design build company. A stepless front entry and a concrete walkway sloped to the sidewalk allows easy passage between indoor and outdoor spaces. A shared outdoor courtyard connects her home to the one where her daughter, Megan Savage, and son-in-law, Rick Freed, live.
Although she had downsized from a larger condo to the A.D.U., it did not mean there was any skimping on personal preferences.
“I wanted a “real” full kitchen and a small area for a desk. I wanted lots of natural light, crucial in Portland in winter, and ended up with three skylights plus good windows,” said Ms. Savage, who spent about $125,000 on the home.
The bedroom is moderately sized with a long closet, and the bathroom, which is purposely large at 11-feet-by-7-feet, features a curbless shower, grab bars, and an overhead shower head with a detachable hand-held sprayer which can be used sitting or standing.
There’s also ample room between fixtures for an aide, or for a walker or wheelchair, should they become necessary. Interior pocket doors are one space saving measure and also create wider doorways in an instant.
The living room, kitchen and desk area comprise the main living space. “It feels open and plenty big for entertaining small numbers, though I have had nine here for dinner,” she said, referring to pre-Covid times.
Against the living room window is where Ms. Savage also keeps her digital piano — a gift from Christmas 2019 — with weighted keys, which are good for arthritic hands.
For anyone considering the installation of an A.D.U., her daughter cautioned: “People need to be aware of how many micro-level and macro-level decisions go into designing and building a home from scratch. It’s a full-time job.”
Still, the decision to tackle the project when they did was worth the months of stress living in a construction site to have her mother living a few steps away. The younger Ms. Savage says that even when her mother is out of sight, she’s not out of earshot. “Now I hear the sound of the piano and know she’s OK. And that’s a real comfort for me.”
For the throuple in Connecticut, final touches for their custom-built home, which cost approximately $1.3 million, were put into place at the beginning of 2020, right before Covid-19 hit.
“This was the conclusion of a process started six years ago. It was fortuitous that the home was ready just before the pandemic hit,” said Mr. Jomini, 64. “It’s hard to imagine a better place to adapt to and weather the pandemic,” Ms. Farnsworth said. “We feel very fortunate.”
Small details mattered in big ways, they found, and they were glad to have taken the time to select lever-style door handles and programmable lighting and locks, along with automated smart-home features to track water flow, and monitor security and lighting.
A separate wing, which contains a half-flight of stairs, was built to accommodate a live-in caregiver if and when the need arises. Currently, the area features an office, home gym, laundry room and small bathroom. A private outdoor courtyard centralizes the herb garden, pool and patio area.
In the last year, the house and the town have both felt like a safe haven, said Ms. Hough, and, thanks to the family’s commitment to landscaping and gardening the property themselves, the land “has taken shape beyond my wildest expectations.”
Indoors, life in the airy home revolves around the vast great room, everyone’s favorite space, which has floor-to-ceiling windows facing marshland.
“It’s spectacular,” Mr. Jomini said of the view. “We have an endless ‘Cinemax’ of birds, foxes, deer, and bobcats under our windows.”