A Home You Can Grow Old With

A simple stairway can be a considerable obstacle for an aging resident of a house, particularly in terms of slipping and falling.
A simple stairway can be a considerable obstacle for an aging resident of a house, particularly in terms of slipping and falling. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
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By Ann Cameron Siegal
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, February 21, 2009

Steven Mintz, a Department of Energy economist, had multiple sclerosis diagnosed more than 30 years ago, so he and his wife, Suzanne, have had plenty of time to think about adapting their Kensington home in preparation for the disease's progression.

John Salmen is not facing mobility issues yet, but he and his wife, Ann Scher, have converted their Takoma Park bungalow to "a house for the next 50 years."

What the couples have in common is a desire to stay in their own homes as long as possible, instead of moving to housing designed for seniors. It's an option called aging in place. Increasingly, it appears that the turmoil in the housing market may also tie others to homes they are unable to sell.

"One of the unwritten tragedies of the current housing price collapse is that for a host of reasons [e.g., money, job security, depreciated properties], a higher share of older Americans will be 'forced' to age in place, who might otherwise have considered alternative housing arrangements," said Stephen Golant, a gerontologist and geographer who teaches at the University of Florida.

As we age, the day-to-day challenges of getting around will most likely increase, whether for simple things such as turning a doorknob or more complex tasks such as taking a shower or navigating a stairway. Often, people wait until a stroke, heart attack, hip replacement or other crisis before thinking about housing adjustments. Such hasty decisions can end up being unattractive and costly.

Awareness of these issues is rising, said Peter Bell, executive director of the National Aging in Place Council. "Boomers may be more cognizant of the need to plan ahead because they have had to deal with their parents in a reaction mode."

Terminology

The aging baby boomer population has a multitude of strategies that fall under the age-in-place umbrella.

Universal design is the most common term. It covers items that aim to serve all members of a household without the need for further adaptations. "Universal design simply enlarges the population of people who can use something," said Louis Tenenbaum, a Potomac-based consultant for independent-living strategies. As an example, he noted that curb cuts were designed for wheelchair access, but are popular with people pushing strollers or wheeling luggage.

Around the house, "A walk-in shower works if you're dependent on a wheelchair or walker, but also makes it easier to wash the dog," said Nancy Thompson, with the Livable Communities department of AARP, the seniors association.

By the same token, while bi-level or adjustable countertops and sinks can make tasks easier for those who cannot stand up, they also make routine tasks easier for others by accommodating height differences.

Other common terms:

· Accessible, which refers to features that comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act.


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