At 72 and 65, Tom and Susie McSweeny love to ballroom dance. “Tom does a mean samba,” Susie says.
Still, Tom has arthritis. So, despite their active lifestyle, when the McSweenys built their Edgewater, Md., house in 2013, they asked their architect to incorporate “aging-in-place” features — including an elevator, wide doorways to accommodate a wheelchair and a flat, no-step entryway — into the design.
“You have to be realistic,” says Susie, who has a background in nursing. You don’t know what health issues you may develop as you get older, but “you try to plan for it so that you can enjoy your later years.”
The McSweenys said they wanted to prepare their home now so that those accessibility features would be ready and waiting.
Aging-in-place design choices are gaining a higher profile as baby boomers become a larger and larger segment of the population. According to AARP, the majority of older Americans want to stay in their homes permanently and live independently. This demographic change translates into demand for residential designs that anticipate changes in health, vision or mobility, and ensures that homes stay safe, comfortable and aesthetically pleasing.
Related to aging in place is “universal design,” which emphasizes accessibility for all, with no sacrifice in style. Components may be as simple as abundant lighting, lever-style door handles, well-located storage, chair-height toilets, slip-resistant flooring and open plans with plenty of circulation space. The most visible result of aging-in-place design is living space that simply “feels roomier and more open,” says Russ Glickman, whose North Potomac company, Glickman Design/Build, specializes in accessible multi-generational and universal design homes.
The McSweenys asked Annapolis architect Cathy Purple Cherry to design a safe, satisfying and stylish new home on a small, waterfront lot. The three-story 4,750-square-foot house, constructed by Apter Remodeling/Craftsman of Annapolis, captures expansive Chesapeake Bay views from every level.
An elevator alongside the staircase makes the entire house accessible. The elevator cost $30,000 to buy and install. But “if you are going to invest in a custom home for aging in place,” says Cherry, “limiting access by wheelchair into and around the house doesn’t make any sense.” Either an elevator or a first floor that can be adapted for one-story living is a must, she says.
The McSweenys’ ground-floor elevator door is just inside the no-step entry to a two-car garage. The McSweenys appreciate the garage, which shields them from the elements when they come and go. The garage and elevator combo already is a real convenience for toting in groceries and for bringing in their arthritic dog after walks.
The ground floor features a family room/guest quarters. It also has a full bathroom and a large storage room that is drywalled, painted and ready to be repurposed as a room for a caregiver if the need arises.
On the first floor, Cherry included not only the main living spaces — living room, dining room, kitchen and deck — but also the laundry and study. Thus, fewer steps are required to carry out daily living activities. The kitchen is inviting and stylish, while loaded with accessibility features.
Cherry incorporated four feet of circulation space around the central island for easy access to food prep areas, the eating bar between the kitchen and living room, and all appliances. The appliances include two ovens — one under the range and the other stacked in easy reach between a lower pot drawer and an upper, wall-mounted microwave. In the adjacent laundry room, the washer and dryer also perch atop storage pedestals to alleviate the need for bending and reaching.
Kitchen storage is plentiful; the McSweenys worked with their cabinetmaker, NVS Kitchen & Bath in Manassas, to plan cabinet placement and pull-out inserts for ease of use. D-shaped door and drawer handles offer a comfortable grip. Kitchen trash bins occupy cabinets in two locations, to cut down on walking. Electrical outlets are conveniently located. Sealed wood flooring and complimentary wood countertops contrast with the white cabinets for aesthetics and offer visual cues to edges and surfaces.
Cherry placed a sizable pantry close to the kitchen and elevator. A motion sensor light illuminates the space even when arms are loaded with groceries.
Halls and doorways throughout the house are wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair. Windows are big and plentiful to soak in light as well as views. Ambient and task lighting ensure good visibility.
A master bedroom and bathroom suite on the top floor offers spaciousness, comfort and ease of use. The bedroom is big and bright, with room for a second bed by the window if ever needed. The master bathroom includes a large shower with bench seating, hand-held spray and blocking to support grab bars that might be installed; a free-standing bathtub with ample room for entry; a chair-height toilet (like all the commodes in the house) with surrounding space for grab bars and wheelchair transfer; twin sinks that could accommodate under-counter legroom; and abundant, easy-to-reach storage. The walk-in master closet is large enough for easy circulation and for a central bench. Pocket doors at the bathroom and closet conserve space while offering wide entry.
One aspect of aging-in-place design is low-maintenance — to minimize the effort and expense of home upkeep. The McSweenys selected durable, easy-to-clean carpeting for the master bedroom and basement, and easy-care, non-slip matte-finish hardwood floors for the rest of the house. Fiber-cement siding, vinyl trim and composite decking form a largely maintenance-free exterior. Tom says the McSweenys opted for clad aluminum windows that are treated to filter out almost all ultraviolet light and to resist soil buildup on the outside. Even the plantings around the house were chosen with ease of care in mind. “There’s very little lawn,” Tom adds.
The McSweenys invested in a large generator to ensure that they would retain power for medical equipment and other uses in case of bad storms. They have two energy-efficient furnaces — one for the top floor and one for the rest of the house — to facilitate zoning. The house is wired for remote access so that the homeowners can use their phone to control heat, lights and the security alarm from wherever they are.
At Cherry’s insistence, says Tom, connections between all the first-floor living spaces are “wide open.” Circulation areas between rooms are large, and big cutouts in interior walls link spaces even more fully. The result is flexibility, enabling the McSweenys to entertain small or large groups. “It maximizes the ability to expand,” Cherry says.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the openness, though, has to do with why most homeowners choose aging-in-place design in the first place. “Older homeowners have finished rearing their children, and now they want to equip their homes to be together,” Cherry says. “With connectivity of spaces, they can be doing different things but still have verbal and visual contact.”
Though aging-in-place design involves anticipating needs, Glickman says, “some people are aging but are in somewhat denial about what that may mean.” They simply may not plan ahead, or they may resist doing so because they think aging-in-place accommodations will look ugly or institutional.
Glickman, who is designated by the National Association of Home Builders as a certified aging-in-place specialist, encourages his remodeling and new home clients to include some accessibility features anyway. Despite homeowners’ fears, most of these features are “invisible” because they blend into the design of the home.
Not only that, but it costs far less to include most aging-in-place components during a construction project than to go back and add them later. Installing supportive blocking for grab bars while the bathroom walls are open, for instance, adds almost nothing to construction costs; adding them later means cutting into the wall.
Another example is prepping for future installation of a residential elevator. With an elevator, people who have trouble negotiating stairs can continue living safely in their multi-story homes. Glickman says it may cost $3,000 extra to stack first-, second- and third-floor closets and rough in an elevator shaft in that space, including a basement-floor cutout for elevator equipment and an extension of electrical and phone lines to the elevator area. But this advance work can save $150,000 or more by eliminating the need for major remodeling later to carve out elevator space.
Architect Bob Wilkoff, owner of Archaeon Architects in Cabin John, Md., is also a universal design and aging-in-place expert. He says incorporating basic aging-in-place features into new home design can have “very little cost effect.” Depending on what’s included, he says, aging in place may add 5 to 10 percent to the project cost. “It’s almost more a matter of space allocation than of equipment cost,” he says. “It’s just logical planning.”
Wilkoff incorporates basic, must-have accessibility features into his home designs, such as blocking for grab bars; corridors and doorways that are wide enough for wheelchairs; and, if possible, inclusion of a first-floor master bedroom (or room that could become one) to enable homeowners to live on one floor now or later. Glickman routinely includes selected barrier-free features in his designs, too, such as larger bathrooms with roomy, curbless showers; kitchen cabinet inserts that pull stored items into easy reach; and sidewalks that rise up gentle grades to no-step entrances — essentially “invisible” ramps.
Wilkoff has clients ranging in age from their early 40s to mid-60s who are requesting aging-in-place features. Even the younger, 40-something homeowners know that, with these design elements, they will have bright, airy homes that are flexible and adaptable. “There’s no negative effect” to good aging-in-place planning or universal design, Wilkoff says. After putting money into an extensive remodel or custom home, “you won’t ever have to leave — and moving is expensive,” he says.
Especially around here, adds Glickman, aging in place is a wise real-estate investment. By and large, he says, “D.C. area homes are not suitable for the aging population. With the population shift, demand for accessible homes has to go up, and the supply is not going to keep up with the demand. In 10 to 15 years, there will be a huge demand. Accessible houses will command higher prices, especially if the accommodations are done in a way that does not look institutional or ‘handicapped.’ ”
Some home improvements made to accommodate a resident can be deducted from federal taxes as medical expenses; these may include widening doorways and halls, adding railings and grab bars, lowering or modifying kitchen cabinets, and more.
Depending on where you live, you may qualify for a tax credit for accessibility components that are incorporated into your remodeled or new home. Virginia has a state Livable Home Tax Credit Program, and at least two Maryland counties — Howard and Montgomery — offer tax credits for accessibility features.
Wendy A. Jordan is a freelance writer.