Kristin Miller and Joseph Lynch renovated their vacation home in the Bershires recently, after giving a lot of thought to their family’s needs.
The hallways are extra wide, so a wheelchair can pass through. The mudroom and bathroom are spacious, to accommodate wheelchair turns. The kitchen has an open area under a counter, for a wheelchair-seated cook.
The thing is, no one in the family uses a wheelchair. But the way they see it, one day someone might.
“When we’re old, we won’t have to move,” said Miller who, like her husband, is in her 40s. “Also, we ski, and if someone breaks a leg, we’re prepared.”
The couple’s farsighted approach to design reflects an evolving way of thinking about housing, one that factors in new demographic realities. People are living longer, and they want to stay in their homes as long as possible. A recent AARP survey found that 84 percent of baby boomers want to remain in their homes and communities when they retire.
And as boomers caring for aging parents have discovered, bad things can happen to older people and there’s a good chance they, too, will face a serious injury or mobility impairment some day, even if it’s temporary. Young healthy adults have a one in four chance of becoming disabled before they retire, according to the Social Security Administration. And statistics collected by the Council for Disability Awareness show there’s a 24 percent chance they’ll be disabled three months or longer.
The realities have sparked a growing interest in the field of “universal design,” which holds that environments should be usable by everyone, regardless of their ability.
“It’s a vision of homes that work for everyone — young couples as well as [older people,”] said Josh Safdie, director of the studio at the Institute for Human Centered Design, a Boston-based nonprofit which promotes design that improves the lives of people of all ages and abilities. “The idea is to not have to live in a different house every 20 years or to radically transform it. It’s about planning for a more diverse future than we ever used to.”
Universal design has roots in 1960s civil rights legislation and in the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, which set standards for public accommodation.
“The concept [of universal design] has been around for 15 or 20 years,” said Kermit Baker, director of the Remodeling Futures Program at Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. “But I think it’s heating up now because of baby boomers getting into that age range and starting to think about issues in a way that will dramatically affect the housing market in the next 15 or 20 years. There is a big, big bubble of folks out there who may be needing those features.”
Many are boomers helping to care for their elderly parents who have glimpsed their future, and flinched. They’ve seen their parents struggle with houses that seem to fight them at every turn because of hazardous staircases, hard-to-access showers, narrow door frames and awkward thresholds that can challenge anyone with mobility problems.
Such problems are compounded in the Northeast because of the age of its housing stock, unwieldy Colonial-style homes and triple deckers, and uneven sidewalks. As a result, many children pack up their parents and move them to assisted living facilities, with their grab bars, ramps, and other safety features. But to a design-conscious cohort of boomers, these facilities are seriously in need of a design revolution. Staying at home is infinitely preferable.
It certainly was for Susan Evans. She and her husband, Joe Sullivan, live in a small Victorian worker’s cottage at the end of a narrow one-way street in Somerville. Situated on a steep hill, the house was in a poor state of repair and all but screamed: “You’re crazy if you stay here!” It was poorly insulated, had dark, narrow hallways and rooms, and a tiny upstairs bathroom “you could barely turn around in,” said Evans, who at 64 is at the outside edge of boomerhood and is in excellent health, as is her husband.
Many of her friends have moved to retirement communities, closer to vacation homes or children, or are thinking about moving south. Evans and Sullivan, who loved their convenient location and hilltop view, decreed they weren’t going anywhere.
“We are among the last to renovate,” said Evans, who works for the Cambridge Public Schools, as the preschool special education coordinator.
Working with the Institute for Human Centered Design, the couple recently completed a full-scale renovation, which looks bright, clean, and modern, and anticipates what their lives might look like if they become disabled.
Hallways were widened and doors and door frames removed from room entrances to accommodate a wheelchair. There is now a fully accessible bathroom on each floor, in case stairs become a problem; the bathroom on the main floor has a shower seat and a sliding door, which makes it easy to open if someone falls against the door. The stairs were widened to make room to install a chair lift.
“We wanted a house we could look after as we aged,” said Evans. “We didn’t want cupboards with little fiddlybits or ornamentation.” Instead, there are built-in storage areas to reduce the need for extra furniture, which could cause falls. The kitchen has low cabinet drawers to cut down on knee-bending, rounded corners to minimize injuries, and glass cabinets so the couple can see into cupboards without having to rely on memory. There are large windows in the dining room, framed, if necessary, for a future French door leading to a deck and a ramp.
“A lot of people I know are planning to stay where they are but haven’t planned how they are going to adapt,” Evans said. “They weren’t willing to have this particular conversation about where they were in their lives, and where they saw themselves.”
This wouldn’t surprise Newton architect and baby boomer Deborah Pierce. She is the author of “The Accessible Home,” about homes built or adapted for people with disabilities, published in October by The Taunton Press.
“We’re all in denial about getting older. But boomers think we are special,” said Pierce. “We think that we won’t fall into the trap other generations have fallen into. We’re more fit. We see our parents struggle as they are aging and think that we can do better.”
By the time they have a problem, “they receive a crash course in living with a disability and sometimes it’s too late to do anything,” she said. “They don’t have the finances. They don’t have the space. Or they don’t have the cognitive skills, or medication is interfering with their thinking. They’re so stressed that focusing on a renovation project seems impossible, and they end up having to move.”
With 84 percent of boomers wanting to remain in their homes, the building and remodeling industry has seen an opportunity and jumped in. The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), in partnership with AARP, now offers a course to teach builders the technical and marketing skills to become “Certified Aging-in-Place Specialists.”
“It’s our fastest growing education program,” said Therese Crahan, NAHB’s executive director.
Not that builders are being deluged with calls from baby boomers anxious for grab bars or step-free entries.
“Once in a while you have a visionary consumer who calls in a remodeler to do aging-in-place remodeling,” she said. More likely, though, they’re doing work on their home already and builders who are keyed in to universal design concepts “present it as a possibility.” For boomers loath to consider their inevitable future, an indirect approach can help.
“You don’t say, ‘You wouldn’t want to do this in case you end up in a wheelchair,’ ” said Paul Sullivan, a Newton builder who does aging-in-place remodeling.
Said Crahan: “You might say, ‘We have to change the doorway anyway, so let’s make it 36-inches wide so a wheelchair can fit in; you might have visitors who need it. Or, let’s put blocking behind the tile in the shower for grab bars, so it’s easier to install later. Or, let’s do a European-style bathroom,’ a euphemism for curbless shower. Or, ‘Let’s put a Costco closet in’,” said Crahan, meaning a large closet that could be converted to an elevator.
Skittish though boomers may be about making such modifications, there are signs that they are starting to pay attention.
“We are all dealing with older parents, so it’s an opening for us to think about our own lives,” said Somerville builder Paul Morse, who is 58. “You may not need it now, or may never need it. But someone, somewhere will be able to use a home more easily because you’ve done it this way.”
Linda Matchan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.