Aging in place

Hardy Minnesotan seniors stay put

small elevator
Widening doorways, removing clutter from floors and installing a small elevator creates multi-story accessibility. Photo courtesy of Sylvestre Remodeling & Design

Home is where the heart is, and aging in place is strongly linked to greater health and happiness. Scientific studies prove that happy hearts promote long-term well-being. Literally. Once elders are uprooted from their own homes a cascade of serious problems can occur, including social isolation. So it is not surprising that the majority of individuals want to stay in a home filled with a lifetime of memories, surrounded by familiar objects, routine and community.

The issue of being able to age in place is critical. Senior citizens are the fastest-growing population, and by 2050, the total number of U.S. residents over 65 is set to double.

And Minnesota is a special case. According to St. Paul’s Wilder Research, Minnesota’s 65-and-older adult population will more than double between 2010 and 2030 as the state’s 1.3 million baby boomers head into retirement. During the present decade alone, our hearty senior population is on track to increase by 41%, more than the national average.

Why? Residents here in the True North tend not to retire to other regions. Hearty and hale, greatly attached to their families and social networks, Minnesotans stay put.

With health and social services for seniors already overtaxed, committees and departments on aging are popping up nationwide, many with specific mandates to keep seniors safe, healthy and happy in their own homes.

Notable in this effort is the design community, members of which often join forces with policy makers to offer ideas and services that improve and extend the lives of seniors who choose to live out their years in their own homes.

The elevator with open door on the lower level.

Seek certified experts

When considering upgrades to an existing home, or building a new one, envisioning a future with full mobility in mind is wise. Although it is difficult to imagine while enjoying robust health, almost 50% of Americans over 65 will have major joint replacement. And that is only one of a multitude of misfortunes that can quash mobility.

Architects, designers, remodelers, custom homebuilders and even occupational therapists have teamed up with other experts to design solutions and products that can help overcome obstacles incurred once mobility is impaired. Their goal is to facilitate lifelong residency.

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), in collaboration with AARP and other experts, has developed the Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist (CAPS) designation, which is earned through training and testing during a multicourse educational program. CAPS professionals focus on the unique needs of the older adult population, examining common barriers and the appropriate aging-in-place home modifications to solve them.

According to NAHB, a CAPS professional can:

  • Recommend updates that will help a person live independently in his or her own home.
  • Work with an occupational therapist to develop a home modification or build plan based on the safety and functional needs of an individual or household.
  • Collaborate with a licensed contractor or interior designer about building and design strategies and techniques for creating attractive, barrier-free living spaces.
  • Provide information about building codes and standards, useful products and resources, and the costs and time required for common remodeling projects.

CAPS remodelers and design-build professionals are not medical or health care professionals, and generally consult by charging an hourly or flat fee. To find a CAPS professional in the Southwest Minneapolis area, visit the NAHB directory page.

Green bathroom with elements of universal design
This bathroom features pleasing contemporary colors, floors cleared of hazardous throw rugs and a shower with no curb. Photo courtesy of Sylvestre Remodeling & Design

Southwest savvy

Sylvestre Remodeling & Design’s owner and chief architect, John Sylvestre, has a lifetime of experience providing ways to make home modifications that allow people to stay in the homes they love, maneuvering not only safely but also in style. A self-confessed “baby boomer,” Sylvestre takes seriously individuals’ desires to remain in their own homes as long as possible.

His Richfield-based firm is CAPS certified and his portfolio abounds with stylish remodeling examples of work with typical Minneapolis housing stock. For example, they installed an elevator in a 1920s home for one client, matching its door to the existing hallway doors to seamlessly integrate the design into the character of the home.

Following well-established aging-in-place guidelines, Sylvestre emphasizes basic categories for consideration:

One-level living is a primary factor once mobility is impacted. Sylvestre explains:
“We have done a number of projects that make sure there is a full bathroom on the first floor, a possible sleeping room and a laundry.”

Logically, the bathroom is another critical area. It must be able to accommodate mobility aids, such as canes, walkers or wheelchairs. Options include widening doors, replacing tubs with showers, investing in wall-hung toilets with adjustable heights, positioning shower controls in a practical location, or removing curbs or step-ups into showers, which also creates a more modern look.

Kitchens are another essential mobility-friendly frontier. Sylvestre suggests “taking a look at cabinets, doorways and islands, ensuring adequate room for tasks.” Fully mobile individuals take for granted clearance space needed to open doors and drawers that would be greatly impacted when using a mobility aid like a walker or wheelchair.

Interior of large walk-in and roll-in shower that is handicapped accessible
Shower stall entries without steps accommodate mobility aids and wheelchairs. Photo courtesy of Sylvestre Remodeling & Design

Tick list of questions 

There are many resources for folks contemplating an aging-in-place adaptable remodel. One of the most popular is AARP’s “HomeFit Guide” (tinyurl.com/aarp-homefit-guide), which begins with a checklist of questions designed to help seniors to think wisely about how to live independently for longer. Here are a dozen of their considerations:

  1. Is there a step-free entrance into your home?
  2. Is there a bedroom, a full bath or a kitchen on the main level?
  3. Are the interior doorways at least 36 inches wide?
  4. Does the kitchen have a work surface you can use while seated?
  5. Are the kitchen cabinets and shelves easy for you to reach?
  6. Are your exterior walkways and entrances well lit?
  7. Do all of your area rugs have non-slip grips to prevent tripping or slipping?
  8. Are stairway light fixtures located at both the top and bottom of the stairs?
  9. Do you have a shower with a step-free entry?
  10. Are the bathroom cabinets and shelves easy for you to reach?
  11. Does your bathroom have a lever-, touch- or sensor-style faucet?
  12. Are there non-slip strips or non-slip mats in the bathtub and/or shower?
Interior of shower showing built-in bench and shower control
A built-in bench is a practical safety consideration. Photo courtesy of Sylvestre Remodeling & Design

Inside/outside

A cold-weather city like Minneapolis must mind its walkways, skyways and highways to ensure the safety of Minnesotans who are staying put. So, along with the inside of homes, urban cityscapes and resources are important to the aging-in-place debate.

A few years back, Jessica Finlay conducted extensive studies at the University of Minnesota in her field of environmental gerontology. She reported that older residents need small amenities like benches, shady spots, nearby shopping and longer-timed traffic lights to help them cross the street.

In Minneapolis, agencies like the city’s Advisory Committee on Aging work with researchers like Finlay and with non-profits like the Wilder Foundation to ensure that mobility considerations are factored into the city’s urban plan.

Minneapolis, it seems, is a good spot to age in place, inside and out!

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