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Redesign ideas you can do now to meet your needs as you get older

The structure on the left houses the elevator. (Julia Caswell Daitch)

Julia Caswell Daitch is the principal architect of Caswell Daitch Architects in Silver Spring and a member of the Potomac Valley Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

As an architect, I believe in transformation with all of my heart. That, I think, is the business of architects. We transform cities, buildings and, in my case, homes.

And if you succeed in transforming homes, you transform lives. I try to do this by rethinking the problems of our existence and trying to solve them. One of my passions is to find better ways to age in place — changing our homes to accommodate a disability or reduced mobility, rather than going to an assisted living facility.

I believe that homes are much more than just drywall and studs — they are part of the family.  A lot of people feel a sense of devastation in having to leave the home that they have occupied for many years, and I know I would be the same way. To me a home becomes like another person in the family. Adding loss of a home to loss of mobility can be really traumatic. I believe if we dream big and design smart, it doesn’t have to be.

So what can I do, as an architect, to help people live how they want to live for as long as they possibly can?

Well, I shape space. I think constantly about how people live in a space and how I would want to live, given their circumstance. I try to think outside of the box and solve the issues that present themselves during the design process. Solving the functional needs is the easiest and much more straightforward problem to solve.

Widening doorways, making bathrooms and kitchens more elderly friendly — that is by far the easy part. Much more vexing are the problems that are less obvious —  the ones that are more touchy-feely and experiential. I want to solve the problems of how to be comfortable in a space given the new challenges we face as we age.

Now, the first and most important problem to solve is not an architectural problem at all.  It is building your support network of positive and respectful people who will help you age in place. People who will call, value you, visit and drive you places. You will need health professionals who will give you physical therapy sessions, check on your vitals, or give you your medication.

Once the support network is in place, then I can start dealing with the architectural issues. For instance, many families don’t think of the privacy issues that develop when you put a bedroom on the first floor for accessibility.  I did one project that involved an entire master suite added on to an existing single-family residence.  The couple and their two children were inviting the wife’s mother, father and brother to live with them.  I thought it was very important to make a distinction between the two different but equal “houses.”

Our solution was to make a grand two-story foyer as an entry to the home and as a separation space.  A very large interior door separates the new master suite from the foyer so that the new family can open it when they wish to invite visitors and keep it closed when privacy is needed.  They have their own living room, two bedrooms and a bath — a small house added to the main house. They say that fences make good neighbors — so install separation spaces like this foyer. Creative solutions like this are at the core of aging in place.

Another project that I’ve been working on for some time is my parents’ house, a 1924 Sears Craftsman bungalow that they’ve lived in for almost 40 years. My parents are both over 90 years old but didn’t want to have their bedroom on the first floor.

My mom felt it was tremendously important that their entire home be accessible.  They didn’t want to be limited to just one floor of their beautifully renovated bungalow. I knew that as Mom and Dad became less mobile, and as Mom started talking about her aversion to moving into an assisted-living facility, that I had to find another solution for them to thrive.

I eventually persuaded them to add an elevator to the back of their home. It was not a tremendously popular idea at the time. Installing an elevator can cost anywhere from $35,000 to $80,000, but, compared to the rising costs of health care and assisted-living facilities, it can be a great investment.

My advice is to install the elevator, or do a lot of these types of changes, before you really need them. That way you can enjoy them as long as possible, as you age gracefully or when you find a sudden need.  The last thing you want to worry about when dealing with a mobility crisis is modifying your home.

We added that elevator more than six years ago, and we all are convinced they could not have continued to live in their house, nor live the way they want to live, without it. Skeptical at first, my parents now love their elevator. And from an architect’s point of view, if it’s tucked in, discreetly, at the back of the house (or better yet in the house) you hardly even notice it.

It is really hard to accept that we are all getting older and less able to do what we used to do, but these types of changes can make living into your golden years easier and more enjoyable.  And it can even extend your age by seamlessly making that transition, with peace of mind, in your beloved home.