A Home for the Ages
Rather than assume a future in assisted living, some seniors pursue a strategy of aging in place.
As technologies shrink the world, and economies of scale bring more possibilities into the reach of more people, many are finding that, instead of moving into an assisted living facility, they’re perfectly capable of adapting their existing home to their needs in advanced age. There are those who are even building handicap-accessible homes earlier in life. Among them, some are certainly thinking about their own future, while others are thinking about the future of the housing market.
“A lot of middle-aged couples are planning ahead, and wisely so,” says Stephen Davis. If you’re younger, it’s easy enough to design a home without ever considering what it would be like to grow old there. Davis, the owner of a home design firm based in Knoxville (Stephen Davis Home Design), started out with projects in Tellico Village where he developed many of the practices he still uses today. “If your home is roomy, you’re going to widen your market to older, retired couples that are planning for every possibility. You’re increasing your market,” says Davis. Or, as he puts it, “It’s really just common sense.”
Although there are plenty of things you can do to modify a home for aging in place, the end result is likely to be more livable if you’re looking ahead and designing a home to spend the rest of your life in. Fortunately, most builders agree that this doesn’t require you to compromise on your style—unless, of course, you’re partial to really tight spaces. For instance, 3 ft. doorways are nice for anyone, not just for people in wheelchairs; the same goes for no-threshold entryways.
However, there are some things you’ll want to be acutely aware of if you’re simply going to modify home plans that haven’t been specifically designed for aging in place. In order to cater to the larger dimensions popularly in demand for kitchens, dining rooms, entertainment rooms, and bedrooms, many of these generic designs reduce the size of hallways and doorways. The result is a house that would need significant modifications to accommodate someone who is wheelchair bound.
There are many such particulars to pay attention to when designing for the long term. For instance, standard dimensions for first-floor bathrooms are often too tight to fit a wheelchair. Here, as in so many places, a little bit of foresight goes a long way. You might also consider a zero-entry shower. Even if you’re still younger, you might enjoy having a sit-down bench and height-adjustable shower head. A raised dishwasher can take stress off your back, maybe even helping to prevent some of the strain that could cause you to later require such a thing. And anyone could benefit from easy, push-button style light switches.
“One thing I always present to a couple, especially if they’re nearing retirement age, is an elevator or a future elevator,” says Davis. He’s been surprised by the number of requests he gets for single-level homes over 3,000 sq. ft. Many people assume that if they no longer want to negotiate a staircase, their only option is a single-level home. But, because of the large footprint, these are typically far more expensive to build. “The elevator is relatively inexpensive. You can put a nice elevator in for two or three levels for $22,000-$25,000.” Davis believes that building a multi-story house with an elevator is almost always going to be less expensive than building a sprawling, single-level home. “You save that $25,000 and so much more,” he says.
Nor do you even have to commit to installing the elevator. If you’re planning ahead, you can put in walk-in closets, one above the other, on each floor of the house. Instead of the costly nightmare that is trying to put an elevator in a home never designed for one, it’s a straightforward process to convert these closets into an elevator shaft should you ever need it.
When the Time Comes
Although you’re likely to be better off if you’ve planned ahead, many necessary modifications can’t be foreseen and can only be implemented as accommodations to specific needs. For instance, you might need roll-under sinks if you or your loved one becomes wheelchair bound. However, giving up the cabinet space when choosing an initial design might not make sense. Other options exist for those having to make accommodations. For example, an option helpful to those who are wheelchair bound is a motorized sink. One seller, RehabMart.com, offers a kit for a little under $2,000 that enables conversion of your existing sink. This allows you to raise or lower your sink by pressing a button—without having to sacrifice the look you’ve chosen.
The Future of Aging in Place
“Old men have their powers of mind unimpaired, when they do not suspend their usual pursuits and their habits of industry.” — Cicero
Whoever says that new technologies are for the young hasn’t grasped the incredible benefits to be reaped by those whose mobility has been impaired. In fact, these are the people who stand to benefit the most from the arrival of such things as the automated home. HVAC, lighting, blinds, and even cooking devices can now be controlled remotely from a smartphone or tablet. Apple’s Home app bridges different makes and models of devices and allows a homeowner to control many connected devices with their voice. Users can also create “scenes” which allow them to preset things such as lighting, temperature, fan speed, and even humidity level based on the time of day or a voice command. Smart plugs allow a user to turn on or off any connected device from a phone or tablet. Various sensors allow you to have your lights turn on when the front door opens, fans turn on when the temperature gets a bit too warm, and lamps turn on or off based on ambient light levels in your home or when no motion is detected for a long period of time.
To keep you from having to fumble around for keys, Smart Locks can auto-lock behind you and auto-unlock as you approach. The August Lock replaces only the interior side of your deadbolt so that you can keep the door hardware you have. Their site boasts that with their lock, “You are the keymaster.” To friends, family, and visitors, you can assign digital keys that are valid for as little as a few minutes, or in perpetuity. You can grant specific people access at specific times on chosen dates. It’s easy to let in the friendly neighbor dropping off groceries or the care provider coming to help with medications or provide homemaker services. Doorbell cams even allow you to see and speak to whoever is at the door and, with your connected lock, you can easily unlock the door from anywhere in your home. For the less mobile, the smart home is, well, smart.
Financing Your Future-Proofed Home
Those who qualify for Medicare and require the level of care typically provided in a nursing home also qualify for the TennCare CHOICES Program. Not only can you use Medicare dollars to pay a neighbor or certain family members to be your caretaker, but you can also use program benefits to help pay for minor home modifications, such as ramps, a walk-in tub, grabbers, and the widening of doors.
Medicare will also help pay for durable medical equipment that can be shown to be medically necessary and will withstand repeated use. For instance, if your doctor says that you need a hydraulic lift to help a caretaker hoist you out of bed, Medicare may cover up to 80% of it. However, you’ll want to do your homework before buying one, as reimbursements are heavily regulated.
For the very poor (those earning less than 50% of the median income) who are over 62 years old, living in a rural area (20,000 or fewer residents in the metro area), and unable to secure private loans, a USDA Rural Housing Home Repair Loan or Grant may be an option. Grants up to $7,500 and loans up to $20,000 are available to help with “repair or remodeling to make homes accessible and useable for handicapped or disabled persons.” However, they can’t be used to “purchase or install equipment (range, refrigerator, etc).”
Veterans and surviving spouses can also get loans for purchasing or modifying a home through the VA’s Home Loan Guaranty Services.
What Home Really Means
“The consciousness of a well-spent life and a memory rich in good deeds afford supreme happiness.” — Cicero
Life is always liable to throw us curve balls. We ought to do all we can to prepare. Yet, though it’s nice to build an island on which one can be totally self-sufficient, it’s important to keep in mind that this only goes so far in building a home. So, in planning for the long-term, don’t forget to cultivate the most fruitful plants of all: meaningful relationships built on mutual respect. And make sure to share many laughs in the home you’ve built. It will keep you young.