Many modify their homes to avoid having to move


September 13, 1992|By JoAnne C. Broadwater | JoAnne C. Broadwater,Contributing writer

Catherine Hodges, a 77-year-old widow living in Butcher Hill, wanted to stay in her home, but climbing the stairs -- and even taking a bath -- started becoming chores.

"I would like to stay in my home as long as I can," said Mrs. Hodges, who uses a walker or a cane. "I'm just used to being by myself with my handicapped daughter all of these years. I know what I'm doing. But I have weakness in my legs, and I'm always falling if I don't watch myself."

Mrs. Hodges obtained a lower-interest loan several years ago to improve her home so she could continue to live there comfortably. She had handrails installed on the stairs, remodeled her first-floor bathroom and added a lower tub with a grab bar and shower.

Older people across the country are making home improvements so they can stay in their homes for the rest of their lives.

"People feel a strong emotional attachment to their homes and to the familiarity of their neighborhoods and the support systems they have built up," said Leah Dobkin, housing specialist for the American Association of Retired Persons. "The home is like a reflection of who they are. It's intimidating to leave it."

"Aging in place" is the trend's catch phrase: older residents staying in their own homes and never moving. According to an AARP survey, 86 percent of America's senior citizens want to live out their lives in their current homes.

"Many of these people have chronic diseases and disabilities and are living in houses that were built before 1940," Ms. Dobkin said. "One strategy to help them is to make their homes more user-friendly."

This might mean adding a first-floor bathroom, a stair glide or a wheelchair lift. It might mean adding lights or redecorating with more contrasting colors for those with vision problems. Or it could mean lowering light switches, raising electrical outlets, building ramps, adding a higher toilet or widening doorways for those who use wheelchairs.

In nearby Canton, a model home called "Our Idea House" illustrates

how a home can be remodeled for older people. The house, at 3003 Fait Ave., features a stair glide and accessible modern kitchen and bathroom. (It is open to the public for tours on Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and other times by appointment. For information, call 327-6193.

"Our goal is to show people things they might do . . . so they understand that fixing up their homes is a viable alternative to leaving," said Jo Fisher, project coordinator for the South East Senior Housing Initiative,a coalition of non-profit community groups that spearheaded the project.

"Seniors are used to living with discomforts," said Brian Latronico, president of Styleline Inc. He donated the building and volunteered his company's services to renovate it. "They just assume that's the way they have to live," Mr. Latronico said. "The whole idea of this house is to show them that they can do something."

Volunteers from the Remodelers Council of the Home Builders ** Association of Maryland are expected to begin work this fall on a similar project that will redesign a South Baltimore row house to meet the needs of its elderly resident.

(Organizers need donations of material and supplies as well as the services of construction professionals willing to donate their time. For information about the project, a collaborative effort of the Remodelers Council, WBAL-TV and the Maryland State Office on Aging, call Dwight Griffith, vice president ofGriffith Brilhart Builders, at 557-8900.)

Some adaptations that can be done in a home are costly: A stair glide, which carries a seated person from one floor to another, costs at least $2,000.

Limited financing in the form of deferred loans and reverse mortgages is available to help cover the costs of retrofitting a home. (For information on these programs, call the Maryland State Office on Aging at (800) AGE-DIAL.)

There are also many inexpensive adaptations. Single-lever faucet handles, grab bars, levered door handles and handrails can be added at minimal cost. Rugs can be tacked down and strips of contrasting colored tape placed on the edge of each step to reduce the risk of falls.

Home adaptations designed to meet an older person's special needs can be attractive as well as functional, said Kitty Daly, a partner in the firm of HBF+ Architects, which offers home design consultation through its DesignReach service.

"As designers, we come in and take into account the aesthetics," she said. "One of the real problems with aging is a loss of power, a loss of control over your life. When the home becomes institutional-looking, it becomes very difficult for people."

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