Independent Living Through Remodeling

With the aging population, accessible design offers opportunities and challenges for remodelers.

April 29, 2001
Marjie O'Connor


Most general remodelers have received requests for projects to make life easier for elderly or disabled clients. But Louis Tenenbaum has turned such jobs into the focus for his Potomoc, Md., company, Access Remodeling. In fact, he has created a new career for himself: an independent living strategist.

Tenenbaum works with homeowners to determine what barriers to independent living may exist in their homes and how to remove those barriers.

"I help people decide about home modifications and equipment that facilitate independent living," Tenenbaum says.

"This work takes into account the individual's health, ability and mobility, caregiver availability and ability, the condition of the existing home, and the budget. This is much more than the average contractor knows about."

In a workshop at the recent NAHB convention in Atlanta, Tenenbaum suggested that remodelers work closely with occupational therapists and other health-care and elder-care professionals to determine exactly what clients need to stay in their own homes. "When people are forced to move, they lose their independence. The people are not the problem; the house is the problem, and lost independence is the result."

Bob Benson heads up the insurance reconstruction and barrier-free modification division of Fairway Construction Co. (Southfield, Mich.). Like Tenenbaum, he receives many of his referrals through occupational therapists, nurses and hospitals. He includes health-care professionals in the planning stages; it's essential that he has a clear understanding of the physical limitations the client will be facing.

"I have to find out if a stroke victim will regain use of his left hand," he explains. "If not, I have to design for right-hand use only."

Benson prides himself on quick turnarounds for requests for modifications. But sometimes, once he visits the home, he recommends the client consider moving because of insurmountable problems in the floorplan.

"If the stairway in a two-story home is too narrow for a chair lift or the customer doesn't want one, I might suggestion they look at living in a ranch-style house," Benson says. "Sometimes the house is just too small to allow for the modifications they need."

Benson takes pride in customer satisfaction, but he admits this niche in remodeling sometimes makes it tough to get positive feedback. Because of the unfortunate circumstances that necessitate the project in the first place, it's hard for clients to get excited about the changes in their homes. And a salesperson has to be sensitive to that.

"You can't go in with a high-pressure approach," he says. "These people have been through a traumatic change. Sometimes they're bitter, especially accident victims. On three different occasions, I've had clients tell me, 'What's the point? I still can't walk.' That's very tough to deal with."

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