The term “aging in place” suggests institutional-looking grab bars, clunky shower seats, unsightly mobility aids and the looming fear of what comes after.
But “living in place” takes the focus away from aging. It finds ways to enable people of all ages and abilities to live their best lives without having to move into a senior living community.
What is the difference between “aging in place” and “living in place?” The answer lies in preparation. Living in place uses universal design principles for home modifications that provide utility, safety, comfort and style for baby boomers entering this stage of life.
Q: What is universal design and why does it matter?
Universal design is the design and composition of an environment so it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.
This means if you implement living in place modifications, it will benefit an aging family member and everyone of all ages and all abilities in the home.
That’s what you get when you work with building and design professionals experienced in helping people to implement living or aging in place home modifications — not an institutionalized space, but a welcoming and stylish environment. It makes everyday living better for everyone while complying with ADA guidelines.
Q: What does the research say about living in place?
Research shows where permanent disabilities newly surface, a few of the most effective elements of recovery and/or maintaining a sense of normalcy have to do with what might be considered mundane. Establishing a daily routine (especially when memory loss and early signs of dementia are present) and incorporating regular social interaction (visits with friends, family and caretakers) are beneficial.
These provide the foundation for a strong sense of well-being, and this helps with overall health and recovery.
Q. What are some common living-in-place accessibility issues?
The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University projects that by 2035, 17 million older households will include at least one resident with a mobility disability for whom stairs, traditional bathrooms, and narrow doors and corridors may pose challenges, a 77 percent increase from today.
That’s from the “Four Challenges to Aging in Place” blog by Jennifer Molinksy, a senior research associate at the housing studies center. “Yet only 3.5 percent of U.S. housing units offer a zero-step entrance into the home, single-floor living and wide doorways and hallways that accommodate someone in a wheelchair,” she said, pointing out features that make homes accessible to those with impaired mobility and who have difficulty grabbing and turning knobs:
• No-step entries and single-floor living, both of which eliminate the need to navigate stairs.
• Switches and outlets reachable at any height.
• Extra-wide hallways and doors to accommodate wheelchairs.
• Lever-style door and faucet handles.
Q: Should I add accessibility features now and not later?
While many existing homes have at least one of these features, only 57 percent have more than one. Single-floor living is most widely available (found in 76 percent of housing units), followed by accessible electrical controls (44 percent) and no-step entries (42 percent). The least common amenities are extra-wide doors and hallways and lever-style door and faucet handles.
Living-in-place home modifications can include:
• Widened hallways, doorways, and exterior ramps to allow for easier access of walkers and wheelchairs.
• Stylish handrails to provide stability.
• Improved lighting and accessible/ergonomic light switches to help prevent falls.
• Replacing carpet with slip-resistant flooring that is easier to navigate.
• Lowering cabinet heights.
Assistive technology can include adding smart home features that enable people to perform everyday tasks with a smartphone app. There are smart appliances that can make previously challenging tasks far easier. New technology could also include a sensor to automatically turn lights or faucets on and off. An added benefit is the savings on utilities.
Many of these updates relate to mobility. These types of issues are a common problem for older adults. But younger people recovering from physical injury or disease may also experience them. For example, a fall from skiing could make living at home difficult once the patient leaves the hospital. Homes with open floor plans are easier to navigate, but older houses with many small rooms require more planning.
Making these changes now can prevent homeowners from rushing to make them later, which could run up the cost even as you bear the emotional and physical toll of not being able to get around your home.
Q: Do living-in-place home modifications make financial sense?
Universal design is popular and is predicted to continue to trend. A search of the latest architectural design must-haves won’t disappoint if you’re considering living-in place home modifications for yourself or a loved one.
Architect Magazine predicts continued growth of accessibility features following universal design principles in the coming decade, primarily due to the next generation’s keen awareness of its own housing needs in the future.
When nearly 90 percent of older Americans (age 65+) prefer to age in place, the industry listens. My generation accounts for a market segment of 49.2 million strong at the last census. In the next 10 years we will see most baby boomers through their 65th birthday, and they will be making home improvements that will incorporate accessible features.
Q: Do remodeling projects bring a high return on investment?
Remodeling Magazine reports homeowners can expect the same levels of ROI as previous years on projects like these:
• Minor kitchen remodel: A 79.7-percent ROI which can include cost-efficient adjustments like smart technology upgrades, door and cabinet pulls that are easier to reach and hold and updating to nonslip flooring and low thresholds for fall prevention.
• Universal design bath remodel: A 62 percent ROI to include updates such as wheelchair-accessible footprint, a comfort height fixture toilet, replace a dated tub with a zero-entry shower and an adaptive living vanity.
• Entryway updates: A 56 percent ROI for updating a front door from a standard size to a wider width. This increases accessibility and the overall curb appeal of the home with a “grand entrance.”
Q: Where do I begin with living-in-place modifications to my home?
If mobility is not an immediate issue, a bathroom remodel may be the best place to begin.
Today, there are countless fixtures and finish options that pair safety with style. And while the ADA legislation covers nonresidential buildings, many of those products are also suitable for residential remodels too.
These products make bathrooms handicapped accessible, such as wall-hung sinks and toilets, and comfort-height toilets. Grab bars, towel bars, even toilet paper holders are available in extra-strength versions with high-end finishes.
Walk-in showers can replace a bathtub and incorporate multiple amenities. Examples include a variety of body sprays, aromatherapy and chromotherapy for a spalike feel.
Q: Shall I begin my journey to living in place now?
Living in place is a decision many of us would prefer to make for ourselves and our senior family members. You can ensure everyone’s needs are met with dignity, compassion and quality of life through consulting a living in place professional today.
• Architect and homebuilder/remodeler Michael Menn is the Principal of Northbrook-based Michael Menn Ltd. His firm has designed and built residential and commercial projects since 1977. Menn is also a Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist (CAPS). For questions or additional information, visit MichaelMenn.com.