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Making homes more accommodating for older or disabled residents

Eleanor Smith has been confined to a wheelchair since childhood. Five years ago, she and her partner got in on the ground floor, quite literally, of East Lake Commons, a cohousing community in Decatur, Ga., where they were able to make not only their house, but their entire neighborhood, wheelchair accessible.

"At our initial homeowner's meeting, we suggested that all homes be built with a zero-step entrance, wide doors and at least a half-bath on the first floor," Smith says. "That was done and all 67 homes comply. In the last five years, several perfectly mobile residents suffered accidents and were confined to wheelchairs, and they were really thankful for the visitable design of their homes."

Smith's dream-come-true of a freewheeling, fully accessible community is one that's increasingly shared by baby boomers who are helping their aging parents get around while keeping one eye trained on their own golden years ahead.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the ranks of Americans over 65 will swell from the current 35 million to 40 million by 2010. AARP says that the vast majority of them (86 percent) plan to remain in their current home for life.

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If they're lucky, they've settled in a community like Bolingbrook, Ill., which has built 3,000 privately owned homes under its new visitability ordinance that requires wide door widths, lower light switches, higher electrical outlets and zero-step doorways wherever topography permits. The state of Illinois recently launched a program that provides $5,000 in public grant money to builders for each home that incorporates visitable features.

"If you're building, it's pennies difference to put those changes into your original design," says Mike Leahy, president of Pinnacle Design and Consulting in Fairfax, Va. "Positioning light switches lower doesn't cost a nickel. Going with rocker-style switches might only cost a few hundred dollars for the entire house. You may add 3 to 5 percent to your construction cost to have an age-in-place home."

"Is it the coming thing? Absolutely. No question," says Eve Lee, a broker-agent in Grays Lake, Ill. "As we age, people more and more need accessibility, either for their parents who are aging or prospectively for themselves. The acceptance level has increased and will continue to do so."

The retrofit blues
Unfortunately for most of us, the old homestead, be it ours or theirs, in which mom and dad plan to spend their twilight years, may be expensive, difficult or even impossible to retrofit for aging in place.

To determine if a home is a viable candidate, first consider the exterior. Is there at least one door accessible to a wheelchair? That might be smooth sailing if you live where slab construction is commonplace. But it could be very rough going indeed in the Midwest and Northeast where raised porches and basements are standard.

"Typically, you have at least three steps to the front door and three steps in the garage," says Leahy. "If you try to do something ramp-wise in the garage, you usually eliminate a parking space, and that definitely hurts resale.

"Ramping or bringing up grade to the front door can also hurt resale. You might ramp to the back door but that sometimes creates a sort of service entrance that may not be well received."


(continued on next page)
-- Posted: July 15, 2004
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