Making homes more accommodating for older or disabled
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.
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
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
"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."