What is Remodeling to Age in Place?

Seniors’ housing is a hot business. The building industry relies on changing needs to create demand.

September 30, 2000

Seniors’ housing is a hot business. The building industry relies on changing needs to create demand. The changes we often think of include changes in lifestyle, technology and equipment, household size, and the changing economic situation of households and neighborhoods. In addition, the senior population also faces changes in their physical capabilities. These changes can be as obvious as the use of a cane or wheelchair or as subtle as the need for more light to perform typical daily tasks. New home construction meets changing needs by providing new product. The remodeling industry meets changing needs by modifying an existing home to meet the owner’s new needs that are often brought about by the desire to age in place.

Aging-in-place remodeling is a specialty that is exactly the same and so much different from other remodeling. The most important factor, as with any business relationship, is to listen very carefully to the client to understand their needs. In this special area of work, the clients rely on the remodeler’s expertise to suggest designs and products that will make their everyday tasks more convenient and safe. Our firm, Access Remodeling, finds it useful to combine sympathetic appreciation for the physical issues of aging with general construction knowledge and a willingness to be innovative.

Planning for Retirement: Some clients want to get all their internal and external systems into shape, provide for maintenance (lawn service, snow removal, appliance contracts), make all the lifestyle improvements, and prepare for the inevitability of oncoming infirmities. These people want everything to work well with little or no care, and be assured that they will never have to move. Most important, they are beginning their planning while there is time to design and execute the plans without the pressure of need. This is the rare client indeed. Mrs. Fisher is one of those clients.

Mrs. Fisher lives in a small one-floor home she bought after her husband died. She called me to talk about the type of safety features she had heard about that would allow her to stay in her own home for the rest of her life. We discussed a range of projects including moving the laundry area, widening doors, installing grab bars, and renovating the bathroom and kitchen. We considered how things could be moved to make a bathroom more accessible. We worked with Mrs. Fisher on design ideas for the bathrooms and kitchen and eventually agreed on a scope of work that would meet her $9,000 budget.

We also discussed the age of the furnace, some typical plumbing problems, and a leak in the porch roof that had caused some damage to the ceiling below. Clients who see themselves staying in place indefinitely as they age typically need a combination of maintenance and home modification. Contractors who provide maintenance can build long-term relationships with their senior clients.

Preparing for Lifestyle: Large numbers of older Americans are empty nesters. This situation provides ample opportunity for lifestyle improvements. Many homes of younger retirees need style updates, and many empty nesters welcome the idea of redecorating to hide the wear and tear of their child rearing years. They are also interested in remodeling their homes for new uses, such as converting bedrooms to home offices, updating the kitchen, and converting an ordinary bathroom to a more luxurious one. Many active adult home owners have the money to pay for these discretionary expenditures and are willing to part with it. Another one of our clients, the Bakers, wanted their home modified to suit their new lifestyle.

The Bakers are a loving couple new to retirement. He is a retired doctor and she worked as a nurse. They both have progressive health problems yet maintain an active lifestyle full of family and social gatherings in their home. The scope of the work increased from meeting to meeting to include an accessible, high-end kitchen; home offices; accessible bathrooms; plans for an elevator or lift; and a no-step entrance from their garage. We eventually established a $300,000 budget for the substantial work they had in mind.

Enormously Rewarding Work: Along with the smaller jobs -- ramps, lifts, widening doors, grab bars, and stair rails -- these are typical stories from the client list of an aging-in-place specialist remodeling contractor. This work is very demanding. Patient customer service is a must. Attention to detail is critical. The strategies needed to market to seniors are completely different from those used for any other group. Yet these demands are balanced by enormously rewarding work and the knowledge that we can have a significant impact in our clients’ lives.

Louis Tenenbaum is an aging-in-place and universal-design, senior-housing specialist. His design/build remodeling firm, Access Remodeling, serves the Washington, D.C. area and concentrates on Universal Design-based home modifications. He can be reached at (301) 983-0131 or homemods@aol.com. Excerpted from Seniors’ Housing News (Winter 1999) with permission by the National Council on Seniors Housing, (800) 368-5242, ext. 220.

About the Author

Overlay Init