By Liz Weston
My husband and I bought what we thought was a starter home 20 years ago. Now we think of it as our “forever” home, where we plan to retire and live out the rest of our days.
We got lucky, because most of the features that make our place good for “aging in place” — the single-story layout, open design, wide doorways — weren’t on our must-have list when we were newlyweds.
We’re not the only people who didn’t think far enough into our future. The vast majority of homebuyers and remodelers don’t consider what it might be like to grow old in their homes, says Richard Duncan, executive director of the Ronald L. Mace Universal Design Institute, a nonprofit in Asheville, North Carolina, that promotes accessible design for housing, public buildings and parks.
“We think aging is what happens to other people,” Duncan says. “Nobody puts away money to save for that good-looking ramp they’ve always wanted.”
CONCERNS FOR EVERYONE
Consider these figures:
— Only about 1 percent of the national housing stock can be considered truly accessible, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, with basic design features such as no-step entry, single-floor living, wide hallways and doorways, electrical controls reachable from a wheelchair and lever-style handles on faucets and doors.
— Homeowners ages 55 and over account for half of the nation’s home improvement expenditures, but fewer than 1 in 10 older remodelers tackled a project that would make their homes more accessible, the center found.
— Eight out of 10 people 65 and older want to remain in their current homes as they age, but the lack of accessible features means many will have to leave those houses or risk a worse quality of life, says Rodney Harrell, director of liveability thought leadership at AARP Public Policy Institute.
And it’s not just the elderly who are affected. Ask anyone who worries about aging parents tumbling down steps or becoming increasingly isolated in family homes that are hard to navigate.
“If you can’t get in and out easily, it’s a huge barrier to staying connected in the community,” Harrell notes.
These concerns are more than just professional for Duncan, since he and his wife are currently renovating a home to make it more accessible after moving from Chapel Hill to Asheville, North Carolina, to be closer to their daughter. The Duncans had renovated their previous home to allow his disabled father to visit, but finding a new home that had even some of the features they wanted proved a challenge, Duncan says.
WHAT TO SEEK IN YOUR LAST HOME
Since truly accessible dwellings are rare, people can focus instead of finding one that can be easily adapted to their needs as they age, Duncan says, such as a home with at least one bedroom on the same level as the kitchen, a full bathroom and the laundry room.
The couple ultimately found a first-floor condo and are remodeling it to widen the master bedroom doorway, replace the thick carpeting with solid-surface floors and add a Wi-Fi-enabled thermostat that is easier to adjust. Future projects will include making the front entrance and back porch “step-free” (they now have 2-inch and 3-inch rises, respectively) and creating a “curbless” or step-free shower.
No-step entries are good for people in wheelchairs, of course, but they also make life easier for people with walkers, teenagers in casts or anyone wheeling a big-screen TV through the door, Harrell notes.
Other important features to look for include:
— Open floor plans that minimize the number of hallways and doorways older people have to navigate.
— Hallways in main living areas that are at least 42 inches wide and bedroom and bathroom doors that are 32 inches wide for wheelchair access.
— Baths and kitchens that can be made more accessible.
For example, standard wheelchairs require a 5-foot turning radius and showers without steps. People can help their future selves by choosing a home with a bathroom that’s spacious enough to maneuver a walker (or a person plus a caregiver) and a shower that’s large enough to include a chair or seat. If homeowners aren’t ready to add more supports — and you should know that “stylish grab bars” are no longer an oxymoron — they can at least reinforce walls during a remodel so that adding bars later is an option.
“You don’t need to create an institutional-looking home,” Harrell says. “You just need to think about your future needs.”
Liz Weston is a certified financial planner and columnist at NerdWallet. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @lizweston.