Baby boomers remodel as they age
For years, Somerville contractor Paul Morse modified homes of clients to make them easier for their longtime owners to enjoy as they age.
His firm, Morse Construction Inc., would widen doorways, make showers wheelchair accessible, improve lighting, and lower cabinets and countertops. The remodeled homes were more convenient, and, more important, safer for their owners to navigate as their mobility declined over time.
Then, as he recently turned 60, Morse realized it was his turn.
“So we just did some renovations of our own house in preparation for the time when I retire,” said Morse. “We widened a hallway, created an open floor plan, and made other changes. We’re getting ready.”
A lot of other boomers are getting ready, too, and increasingly they’re turning to certified “aging in place” remodelers and contractors, such as Morse, who are trained to make homes more accessible and livable for seniors.
“It’s much broader than just making it easy to get around,” said Amy Levner, manager of the livable communities program at AARP, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons. “It’s about people’s health. It’s about people’s mental health. Studies and surveys show that many people as they grow older don’t want to leave their homes and are happier and healthier living there. We’re striving to give people that option.”
Indeed, a recent survey by Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate found that boomers between the ages of 49 and 67 overwhelmingly not only want to stay in their longtime communities after they retire, but also plan to updates or renovate their homes when they stop working.
Over the past decade, AARP has worked with the National Association of Home Builders to come up with new “Certified Aging in Place,” or CAP, programs and guidelines for home remodelers and builders. The three-course certification program costs about $300 and has already certified 5,500 builders across the country, nearly 200 in Massachusetts.
The course work covers a lot of ground, from how wide doors should be for wheelchairs (about 36 inches) to the best type of door knobs (lever handles).
As boomers retire in increasing numbers and the demand for special home modifications rises, the home builders organization is expecting a corresponding increase in remodelers and contractors want to know how to make necessary “aging in place” modifications to homes.
“We’re stunned by how fast the program is growing,” said Jeff Jenkins, director of the NAHB’s education unit. “A lot of boomers have overseen modifications to their parents’ homes, but now they’re either starting to modify their own homes or at least starting to eye it. It may not be their reality now, but it will be in a few years when they get older.”
The modifications generally follow the design guidelines the building industry uses for housing for the elderly. However, different types of homes require different levels of modification.
A one-floor ranch, for instance, probably doesn’t need as much work as a two-story Colonial: maybe something as simple as better-positioned, brighter lighting and more convenient electric outlets; bigger rocker-style light switches; and easy-to-grasp “C” and “D”-shaped handles on drawers and cabinet doors.
The goal: to make it easier for people with, say, arthritis to grab and use simple household items, and to prevent falls.
As the house gets older and more elaborate, so too does the job of making it safer and more user-friendly. An old, two-story home with lots of nooks and crannies can be expensive and tricky to modify.
A simple enough idea such as moving the bedroom from the second to the first floor may also require a wholesale renovation of the ground-floor bathroom — often just a water closet that should have a walk-in shower, grab bars, smaller vanities for wheelchair accessibility, and other features. That alone can run into the tens of thousands of dollars.
Other items may include taking down non-load-bearing walls — or even adding walls — to make rooms large enough for master bedrooms or to create new master bedrooms out of living rooms.
Jim Haynes, a longtime builder of senior housing, is so convinced the market for “aging in place” services will grow, he’s now launching a new company, Artisan Senior Renovation in Auburn. He’s also recently taken the courses to become certified as an aging-in-place specialist.
“It carries cachet,” he said. “There really is a big demand for this type of service, and it’s only going to grow bigger.”
Jennifer Lynch, founder and president of the Boston chapter of the National Aging in Place Council, emphasized that all sorts of professionals — not just remodelers and home builders — are getting involved in aging-in-place issues: doctors, visiting nurses, physical therapists, and others who take care of people and want their clients to be safe in their own homes.
“It’s all about health,” Lynch said. “We believe, and others do too, that it’s physically and emotionally better for many people to live right in their own homes and not move elsewhere. It also costs less than assisted living and other types of senior housing.
“Staying in-home,” she added, “is good for people.”