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Aging in Place: What to Know

Senior homeowners

The concept of aging in place, where homes are adapted so their aging owners can remain in them longer, is gaining popularity. A recent AARP study indicated that 63% of homeowners 45 and older expect to stay in their homes well into old age, but 23% expect to have trouble getting around within the next five years.

The Need for Specialists

The AARP study led to the creation of a designation for a Certified Aging in Place (CAPS) specialist by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). Dan Bawden, president of Houston-based Legal Eagle Contractors Co., coordinated the program and is also a trustee of the NAHB Remodelers council. Bawden and his team developed a three-day educational and certification program, which AARP promotes to its members.

"Many contractors who go through the program use the ideas immediately in their next project, regardless of the client's age," Bawden says. "The work emphasizes safety and planning for the future. It makes homeowners feel safer, and they appreciate that the contractor considered those concerns."

Among other things, the program helps remodelers understand the mindset of older clients who have difficulty getting around, notes Don Novak, president of Novak Construction in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and a CAPS specialist. "The remodeling work is the easy part," he says. "The training allows you to look at things differently and understand their concerns. You don't realize what you take for granted until you spend some time in a wheelchair."

Catering to Long-Term Needs

The specifics of an aging in place project depends on the homeowners' unique requirements. But many of the key elements to creating a strong aging in place standard for a remodeling project are unobtrusive and can be incorporated into many jobs. They include zero-clearance thresholds (so wheelchairs can move smoothly and to prevent trips and falls), wider doorways and halls, as well as structural supports that offer future flexibility.

"I include these options in my designs on many projects, and then I point out what I've done during the presentation," says CAPS specialist Vince Butler, president of Butler Brothers Corp. in Clifton, Va. "Clients often realize that these additions are great ideas regardless of their abilities."

The changes can be minor and aimed at the future, he stresses. These include providing backing support behind bathroom walls so grab-bars can be added later.

"Attaching a bar to ceramic tile can mean taking out the entire wall, but if we put in the support when we're upgrading the bathroom, it can save hundreds or thousands of dollars," Butler says. Similarly, he creates 36-inch-wide doorways, but adds a stud that narrows it to a more typical 28 inches. The stud then can be removed if the expansion is needed later without having to make structural changes. "These are subtle details that don't cost a lot of money, but would cost a lot to add later, and the customers appreciate that you've thought of their long-term needs."

Customer Relations Differ

Aging in place concepts also focus on dealing with the specific concerns of older clients. "The customers are more cautious, because they fear being ripped off, and they want to be certain the contractor understands their needs," Novak says.

For example, many seniors have poor short-term memory, so they can ask the same question many times. A contractor familiar with aging in place concepts might post a weekly schedule on the client's refrigerator, so the customer can be reminded of what will happen and when. "That makes them feel more comfortable," Bawden says. "It allows the contractor to spend more time on the work and produces a more satisfied customer."