Home safe home

You’ve made your house your home. And now it’s easier than ever to stay in it your entire life.

Story by Julie Saetre

When you hear the words “aging in place,” what pops into your mind? If you’re like many people, it’s thoughts of institutional-style grab bars glaring from the walls of an otherwise fashionable bathroom or a wheelchair ramp rising toward a home’s front door.

“The term,” says Dan DiClerico, smart home strategist and home expert for HomeAdvisor, “doesn’t really resonate with homeowners. From the very beginning, (it) has had a little bit of a PR problem.”

That’s unfortunate, experts say, because aging in place doesn’t focus only on accessibility issues for seniors using walkers or wheelchairs. Statistics show that, once we find the perfect home in a community we love, we intend to stay there. And anyone who plans to remain in a certain house for the long term should be thinking about making that space more convenient, comfortable and safe, regardless of residents’ ages and mobility.

“People have that fear, that they’re going to make their house ugly. But you can make your house even more attractive.”

The Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies reports that in 2035, for the first time in American history, one in five people will be older than 65. And AARP studies have found that 90 percent of those people plan to remain in their homes as they age. That paradigm shift means that the time to start making our homes livable in the long term is now, stresses Rodney Harrell, director of Livability Thought Leadership for the AARP Public Policy Institute.

“We really need to get people to start thinking about their future,” he stresses. “We need to create the homes that will work for us regardless of what circumstance we find ourselves.”

It’s a concept called “universal design” by builders, architects and other home experts, and when implemented well, it’s anything but institutional.

“People don’t realize that we can do aging in place and universal design so seamlessly that they realize that the house is more comfortable, but they don’t know why,” says Joanne Chappell-Theunissen, who chairs the (US) National Association of Home Builders Remodelers Council. “People have that fear, that they’re going to make their house ugly. (But) you can make your house even more attractive.”

It also will make your home more welcoming to family and friends, a concept the pros call “visitability.” Chappell-Theunissen, who has more than 17 years of experience in home design and building, says that her 92-year-old aunt can still climb the flight of stairs in her two-story home. But because her house includes a bathroom that incorporates universal design elements, she finds herself getting much-welcome company.

Bathroom for disabled

“She’s got grandchildren who are all heavily involved in sports. Every time one of them gets hurt, they end up living with grandma for a while, because grandma’s got that bathroom that works so well for them.”

Starting now to make your home more livable also enables you to spread out the costs over time. HomeAdvisor’s 2017 Aging in Place Report includes a “planning pyramid” that begins at a base with basic maintenance projects and continues upward through low-cost improvements, ease-of-living features and safety elements to the final additions of widening doorways, adding ramps and shifting to a first-floor master bedroom.

“As we continue up the pyramid, the projects become more complicated and, as a result, more expensive,” DiClerico says. “That’s another reason for a holistic approach and early planning and doing this work in phases. It doesn’t have to be prohibitively expensive if you’re smart about it.”

One way to approach the process wisely: Consult with a specialist. The NAHB reports that 80 percent of remodeling companies are doing aging-in-place projects, up from 68 percent five years ago. But hiring a random handyman or remodeler here and there can create problems down the road.

“I’ve had clients come to me after they’ve had a couple of things done to the house, and as we progress, we have to undo things to get to that next stage,” Chappell-Theunissen cautions. “And so they’re spending money (on earlier projects) that they end up having to throw away.”

The NAHB and AARP collaborated with Home Innovation Research Labs to develop the Certified Aging-In-Place Specialist program. Construction and design professionals who become CAPS certified undergo training focused on building or remodeling homes so they accommodate all stages of residents’ lives.

“It puts someone in your life who can step back, take a realistic view of it all and develop a plan for you,” Chappell-Theunissen says.

What might that plan encompass? Plenty, starting with the most basic of all elements.

 “A lot of people neglect to think about lighting,” says Harrell. “But our eyes need more light as we get older (to see clearly).”

The more natural light, the better, pros say, so choose window coverings that let the sun in during the day while still providing privacy at night. After dark, LED motion-sensor lights in bathrooms and hallways offer a soft glow to guide your steps. And in the kitchen, under-cabinet lighting helps illuminate your meal prep.

Beautiful Kitchen in Luxury Home with Island and Stainless Steel

“With traditional lighting in a kitchen, you’re often working in your shadow,” Chappell-Theunissen explains.

If that kitchen follows a one-note color scheme — think white on white — add a contrasting hue to countertop edges.

“It seems like a design aesthetic,” says Chappell-Theunissen, “when in fact it’s really a very sensible issue with regards to limited sight. As we get older, the eye receptor changes, and so we don’t see contrasts as well. So you’re constantly running your hip into that (countertop) corner when you never did before.”

While you’re in the kitchen, consider adding adjustable-height countertops and reorganizing your pantry and cabinets by adding pullout shelves and lazy Susans to bring hard-to-reach items closer. Arrange frequently used items on open shelving for easy access. 

“When it comes to storage throughout the home, a helpful phrase in the industry is ‘remember the nose-to-knee rule,’” DiClerico explains. “The goal is to organize your cabinet, your closet, other storage areas in the home so that nothing heavy or large or awkward is above your nose or below the knees.”

Also consider adding the luxury of a convection cooktop. Through a nifty heating process, electricity warms a coil, causing a magnetic field to form under the cooktop surface. When used with compatible cookware, currents cause the pan — not the surface — to heat instantly. Cooking is faster and more even, while the cooktop stays blissfully cool.

“Induction cooking is great — the power, the precision, the performance,” DiClerico says. “It’s a great solution in the kitchen, and it’s also great for aging in place because it really reduces the risk of burns.”

Next up: Get grounded by reevaluating your floor surfaces. Area rugs and high-pile carpeting need to go: They commonly cause slips, trips and falls, which combined are the leading cause of nonfatal and fatal injuries among older adults, DiClerico says. Any high-shine slick surfaces should be reconsidered as well. Replace them with low-pile carpets or satiny-finished floorings that are smooth to the touch but aren’t slippery.

“There are so many more products and materials that are geared toward this,” DiClerico says. “Slip-resistant flooring that looks great and porcelain tiles that look exactly like wood but that meet the highest threshold for slip resistance are examples of that.”

Adds Chappell-Theunissen, “Manufacturers have really embraced the idea of universal design and aging in place. They have put on the market a whole plethora of materials that are well suited to what we’re trying to do and that aesthetically are just very pretty.”

But don’t just think about physical changes. Today’s tech products not only help you outfit a home for the long term, but they’re also convenient — and fun — for today. And making your domain “smart” is easier than you think.

“There really are so many applications that are going to improve the accessibility, the safety, the convenience around the home for all homeowners, but especially for that aging-in-place crowd,” says DiClerico.

Woman In Kitchen Asking Digital Assistant Question

Start with a virtual voice assistant, such as Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod or Google Home. These devices recognize human speech and respond to your commands, whether you want to know the day’s weather forecast, traffic conditions or sports scores. They also can be used to make a hands-free phone call, send a text, schedule appointments or receive medication reminders.

A 2017 study by the Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing provided residents of a continuing-care retirement community in California with an Amazon Echo for six months. At the study’s conclusion, all users said the devices made their lives easier, with 75 percent reporting using them daily.

Intelligent home automation system: Fahrenheit temperature multimedia thermostat

A virtual voice assistant also can help you control other smart home devices. A smart thermostat works in conjunction with your home’s heating and cooling systems, allowing you to control the temperature even when you’re on the go. Some models remember your preferred settings and automatically adjust to current conditions. They also can send you maintenance reminders and energy-use reports.

Similar technology is used in smart faucets for your sinks and shower. Set the temperature you prefer for hand-washing and bathing, and you’ll get that exact level every time you turn on the faucet. 

Water running from shower head in bathroom with dark black backg

“It’s a wonderful safety feature,” says Chappell-Theunissen. “(Water) doesn’t accidentally get too hot. You figure out what’s comfortable for you, set that, and you actually have a visual (display) of it. So you’re not trying to work a handle and remember about where it goes.”

Another smart feature to consider: locks for your home’s entrances. A smart lock eliminates fumbling for keys and trying to manipulate them into locks. Some use a key pad or your smart phone to enter a code; others automatically unlock when your key fob is near the door. Depending on the model you choose, a smart lock also can coordinate with your smart thermostat, automatically lowering the home’s temperature when you leave, for example, and raising it when you enter. If a friend or neighbor needs to drop something off when you’re not home or take care of pets or plants while you’re traveling, you can assign them a temporary access code that expires when no longer necessary.

Using a smartphone to open an electronic lock on a front door

As you develop your plan for a safer, more convenient, more livable home for the long term, expect to find even more innovations to make life easier for you and your guests. 

“There are a lot of things happening right now that are helping people stay in their homes longer, but also are just making our homes so much better in so many ways,” DiClerico says. “It all bodes well for the future of housing.”

This story originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

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