It’s the little things

Small touches can make homes more accessible, without looking institutional

“We’re all aging,” laughs Alissa Boroff. “We’ve been aging since the day we were born.”

That incontrovertible truth is running up against a demographic anomaly: the baby boomers; not only are there a lot of them, as a group they are adamant that they will not go gently into that good assisted living facility.

And that has created a whole new specialty in the construction and home design industry: builders, architects and consultants who help homeowners stay in their own homes longer.

Surveys consistently show that baby boomers and older adults vastly prefer to stay in their current homes as they age. A 2009 survey conducted by the MetLife Mature Market Institute for the National Association of Home Builders showed that 63 percent of respondents 55 and older plan to stay in their own homes, while only 12 percent have definitely decided to move.

In 1989, the National Association of Home Builders created its own Seniors Housing Council (now known as the 50+ Housing Council). Around the same time, a group in Georgia called Concrete Change began advocating for “visitability” in new construction, a concept they defined to include at least one zero-step entry, wider (at least 31.5 inch) interior doors, and at least a half bath on the main floor. Those basic standards, the group argued, would allow basic access for people with limited mobility to visit friends and family and also to stay in their own homes longer.

The National Association of Home Builders recently began training Certified Aging in Place Specialists. There are now 75 CAPS in Minnesota who have passed a course on the needs of older clients and solutions to common accessibility problems.

Boroff founded Access Solutions, which is part of the therapy division of Augustana Care Corporation, in 2005. She has a background in occupational therapy and interior design, two disparate disciplines she pursued specifically with the goal of entering this line of work.

Access Solutions offers home-access assessments and design consultation, among other services, to patients returning to their own homes from a nursing home, as well as to people who want to extend the length of time they are able to stay in their homes.

Boroff says one of the major changes that has taken place over the past few decades is that, instead of talking about handicap access and aging, the building industry is beginning to look at the issue in terms of universal design — making new and existing homes work for everyone.

Part of that stems from a general discomfort around aging and handicaps. Boroff gives the example of taller toilets, which used to be called “handicap-height” and are now known as “comfort-height” and easy to find in any home improvement store.

A home assessment begins before she even gets to the front door, she says, noting whether there are railings on exterior steps and how high the front-door threshold is. Many homes have a 2- or 3-inch step up at the front door that we don’t even notice until it becomes a little harder to walk.

Once inside, she examines the lighting, the width of doorways, potential hazards in the bathroom and much more. As a therapist, she can also anticipate her clients’ future limitations, as well as assessing their current situation.

Many of the recommendations she makes for her clients are solved by a quick trip to a hardware store, such as changing out doorknobs for lever handles and adding dimmer switches. Others require a little more work, such as installing grab bars and stairway railings. Still more require major home renovations. And sometimes, yes, she does have to tell clients that it’s not possible to make their current home suit their needs. And then it may be time to call in another new kind of specialist: professional downsizers.

Simple solutions

These are some common and relatively easy home modifications. A home assessment with a Certified Aging in Place Specialist or other expert will help you identify your particular needs.

— Have the front walk resloped right up to the front door, eliminating steps.

— Replace doorknobs with lever handles.

— Add grab bars in the bathroom.

— Install handrails on all stairs.

— Add lighting (nightlights, too!) to brighten dim hallways.

— Add exterior lighting.

— Remove or tape down throw rugs.

— Place a closet-sized washer-dryer set in a main-floor closet.

— Place garage door openers, thermostats and light switches where all household members can reach them, or use remotes