Builders, remodeling contractors plan for an aging population

  • Grab bars assist with standing, sitting and maneuvering in the shower.

    Grab bars assist with standing, sitting and maneuvering in the shower. Crimson Design and Construction

  • A built-in seat offers a place to sit and shower with a hand-held shower spray.

    A built-in seat offers a place to sit and shower with a hand-held shower spray.

  • Although designed for a young family, this kitchen can easily be adapted for older or handicapped residents.

    Although designed for a young family, this kitchen can easily be adapted for older or handicapped residents.

  • This Naperville master bathroom has faucets with lever handles that are easier for stiff hands to grasp.

    This Naperville master bathroom has faucets with lever handles that are easier for stiff hands to grasp.

By Arlene Miles
Daily Herald Correspondent
Published2/21/2009 9:38 PM

The baby boom generation has made a big impact on everything, from changing morals to changing attitudes to changing the environment.

Boomers have long said they weren't going to grow old, or at least would age at a slower rate. Yet, the first wave has begun to enter retirement age, and while this generation is more active and healthier than the one that preceded it, time does take its toll on aging bodies. Eyes don't work as well, bodies tire more easily or maybe arthritis or a neurological problem have set in, decreasing mobility. It's time to make everyday life a bit easier by taking a look at the place where you spend the most time: your home.


Older Americans don't want to give up their secure surroundings, however, when they reach an age when moving is particularly undesirable. Instead they want alternatives that allow them to remain in familiar surroundings while avoiding the stress of a move to a retirement community.

"You don't want people to be frustrated in their own home and feel trapped," said Scott Sevon, president and owner of Sevvonco in Palatine.

The objective of remodeling a house to accommodate one's older years is to lessen hazards and adverse consequences, and to design living space to minimize fatigue. And if you think that planning for declining faculties and mobility means a lot of ugly handrails and other medicinal fixtures, think again. In most cases modifications made will be invisible and even aesthetically pleasing.

This is called integrated design, or from a rehabber's point of view, universal remodeling.

"What universal remodeling looks at is not only the aging thing, but to make a home accessible, not medicinal," said Dan Taddei, director of education and certification for the National Association of the Remodeling Industry. "It also means that a remodeler can work with a client that has special needs."

The senior/special needs market is one of the fastest growing niches in the remodeling industry. Builders and remodeler qualified to address this market have a Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) designation from the National Association of Home Remodelers.

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"CAPS addresses the laws, codes and standards, categories of design, design modifications and how to assess the client," said Sevon, who periodically teaches his association's course to industry professionals as well as social workers and other individuals who may need to recommend housing modifications.

At the moment, CAPS is the only certification of its type available for remodeling professionals, but Taddei indicated that NARI hopes to have its own educational course available later this year.

Some areas of the home are more hazardous than others, namely kitchens and bathrooms.

"These are the most used areas and they can have a tremendous amount of barriers," Sevon said.

Maneuvering with wheelchairs or walkers, attempting to reach shelves in high cabinets and even accessing such appliances as refrigerators or microwaves can provide problems. Sometimes modifications are simple, such as purchasing a side-by-side refrigerator or installing a microwave at a lower height. Counter height may also be lowered to 32 or 36 inches, depending on the height of residents' wheelchairs, while under counter spaces may be open to allow access to sinks and other appliances.


For cabinets, particularly higher ones, pull-down shelves can be installed for easy access. Doors (whether on cabinets or room entryways), drawers and faucet controls should be pull or lever type instead of knobs, which can be more painful to use for individuals with arthritis or other conditions that limit dexterity.

Bathrooms provide many of the same hazards regarding access along with the additional fear of falling on a slippery surface. Many remodelers will recommend installing extra support behind drywall even if a homeowner does not want grab bars installed at present. In recent years, grab bars have also become decorative to blend in more with the design.

"Older senior citizens don't care what it looks like as they just want a grab bar," said Joel Kristianson of Crimson Design and construction in Naperville. "Younger people want aesthetics to blend in with functionality."

Other options to minimize hazards in the bath area are zero threshold or low threshold showers. With a zero threshold shower, residents can roll a wheelchair right into the shower area. Low threshold showers have a small barrier of only several inches at most, requiring minimal vertical movement, unlike entering a traditional bathtub.

"We find that when remodeling a bathroom, because of the way it was originally constructed it's impossible to install a zero threshold shower," Kristianson noted. "So, it's important to assess what the client is able to do and plan and remodel accordingly."

Other construction elements that provide difficulty for disabled adults, particularly those in wheelchairs, are interior doors, which are traditionally 32-inches wide, but with trim, only provide a 28-inch opening. To accommodate wheelchairs, doors should be at least 36-inches wide, so the opening will be 32 inches.

"Many people want us to come in just to change the doors but it's not that simple," Sevon said, noting that larger holes must be cut into walls to accommodate the larger sized interior door openings.

Door handles are also an issue. Again, just as for cabinetry, handles should be the pull or lever type so that they may be more easily gripped. The way closet doors open is also a concern. Swinging bifold doors that open all the way are recommended to allow easy access to the contents inside. Other options include lowering clothing rods, while pull down shelving may also be installed just like in kitchen cabinets.

Virtually any design element can be modified, from placing light switches and electrical outlets at comfortable heights to moving controls for showers, blinds or anything with moving parts so that there is less stress for residents turning on and off or opening and closing. Even doing tasks such as taking out garbage or returning home with groceries can be made easier with appropriately placed railings or ornamental boxes near the outside door where residents can set down packages momentarily.

One element that may not get as much consideration is proper lighting, which can minimize falls and similar hazards. Areas with low light differ from house to house, but some of the most crucial locations in any home include closets, under cabinets in kitchens, interior hallways, and exterior entrances.

While the CAPS designation provides a wealth of ideal renovation requirements, some may not be practical in actual application.

"It's different when you come across it in the real world; some of it you can do something about and some you can't," Kristianson said. "For example, CAPS says you should have all the floors in a home on the same level, but in a 1970s-built house with lowered family room, that's impossible."

Neither are such modifications strictly for senior citizens. Kristianson, who designed a lot of commercial buildings as an architect before starting Crimson Design and Construction, said the CAPS guidelines are in line with Americans with Disabilities Act specifications.

Broadening the concept of universal design is one of the reasons why NARI has chosen to formulate its own certification, so marketing will also address the needs of younger people who may not even be thinking about their retirement years.

Taddei said he wanted such amenities when he purchased a new house several years ago, including a first-floor master bedroom. The latter proved fortuitous when he broke his leg and had trouble getting around the house.

Additions such as first-floor master suites are popular for boomers who are looking ahead, and for families who want grandma and/or grandpa to move in with them. In the case of having elderly parents move in, separate entrances may be included to give family members some privacy.

Yet many aging boomers who embark upon home renovation don't think about including modifications that may help them down the road.

"I'm finding that I'm the one suggesting the CAPS stuff," Kristianson said. "They don't want to bring it up, but when I do, they often say, 'Hey, that's a good idea.' "

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