Renovating Now for Freedom Later

AGING IN PLACE

February 02, 1997|By Rosemary Knower

Does your house have good night lighting in place, or do you risk a fall moving through it in the dark? In the kitchen, do you find yourself dealing with an inconvenient layout that has you walking from sink to refrigerator to stove, carrying heavy bowls and cartons of milk? If you burn the toast and need to open a window for air, do you just about throw your back out trying to raise a clumsy, old-fashioned sash window?

In the bathroom, is the shower faucet inconveniently high? Does getting in and out of the tub seem perilous at times?

Try keeping a list from morning to night, as you use your home. How many things -- fixable things -- annoy you now? Take that checklist and look ahead 20 years. Think how much more annoying all those little inconveniences will be when your arms aren't as strong as they are now, and your vision isn't as good.

You love your house, but think: As you move about it, do you have a clear path, or is the way cluttered with scatter rugs and obstacles? Are your appliances at a convenient level, or do you find yourself having to squat and peer to program your VCR or music system?

Could you get into your house if you had to use a wheelchair? Could you wheel yourself close enough to the sink and stove? How would you bathe if you were wheelchair-bound? (Wheelchair access in the home is one of the deciding factors between home care and mandated nursing-home care after an elderly person has a medical emergency.)

The graying of America is upon us. We are all getting older; and it's better to answer these questions now rather than later. If you don't want to move someday from your beloved home to a managed-care facility or senior community, and if you want to stay away from assisted-living as long as you can, you've got plenty of company.

A popular choice

Aging in place is an increasingly popular choice for many people, prompted in part by the escalating cost of alternatives like nursing homes and managed-care facilities. But making your house senior-friendly requires thought and planning. Why wait? Why not get started now on assessing and redesigning your kitchen, bathroom and living spaces?

The process for making a home convenient for seniors goes by several names: "design for aging in place," "barrier-free design" or "universal-access design." Whatever name appeals to you, it makes sense to begin thinking now about making your home easier to use later.

Cynthia Leibrock, author of "Beautiful, Barrier Free" (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1993), and a nationally known universal-access designer, points out, "Everybody is aging; but we are all in denial. We don't want to think that we might need environmental support to get through the process of getting older. Many elderly people who suffer disabling falls could have avoided those injuries if their homes had been adapted for barrier-free design."

Leibrock sees a revolution on the way; an attack on how we manage aging, led, as most trends of the past 40 years have been, by that population bulge known as the boomers. "The boomers, as a generation, are used to getting what they want," says Leibrock. "And they don't want managed-care facilities, and they don't want nursing homes. They want to stay independent, and they want to be responsible for themselves. And they can be, with planning.

"Health-care equipment is becoming portable enough now that we don't need people in facilities. The boomers' No. 1 choice is going to be to use portable health-care technology and barrier-free design [so that they can] stay in their own homes as they age."

Joan Eisenberg, of JME Consulting in Baltimore, agrees. Eisenberg advocated universal-access remodeling long before it became fashionable. Why? "I got involved on a personal basis, because over the years I was incapacitated by a variety of things, from a broken leg to a neck fusion," she says.

"I started researching universal access 20 years ago, and using it with my clients. That was before the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] made everyone aware of how much of a barrier steps and standard fixtures could be. I had to convince people that things like lever door handles, and level flooring were a good idea. I remember designing one home bathroom with a shower seat, and grab bars -- and it was not an easy sell. But within six months, the husband and wife had both broken their ankles, and needed the extra safety features. [The wife] said, 'I don't know how we would have gotten along without them.' "

Access for all

Eisenberg promotes universal access in all homes. "Basically, we're all impaired in some way or another," she says. "Children are small; many people wear glasses that make it difficult to see steps; and how many people have broken a leg, or sprained an ankle? Universal design is just common sense. Every bathroom should be safe, and every kitchen easy to use."

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