Remodeling Now to Avoid Accessibility Problems Later
By ELIZABETH POPE
ON a visit to her friends’ home in France last fall, Nancy Carlin of Naples, Fla., admired the elegant shower room.
When she returned, Mrs. Carlin, 60, asked a contractor to redo the master bath in her courtyard villa using a similar curbless, doorless design. “Since I only wanted to do this once, I figured I’d make it accessible for when I’m older,” said Mrs. Carlin, a retired teacher.
The new master bath in her four-bedroom ground-floor unit, built in 1995, has a river rock shower, towel racks that function as grab bars and plenty of floor space to maneuver a wheelchair or walker if needed. (Three other bathrooms were given minor facelifts, too.)
“The bathroom reminds me of standing in a North Carolina stream bed, skipping stones,” said Mrs. Carlin. “You would never know it’s fully accessible. There’s no whiff of the nursing home.”
Having witnessed the mobility challenges that her ailing parents and her late husband had with stairs, bathtubs and narrow doorways in her former home in Basking Ridge, N.J., she started “thinking about remodeling so you would never have to move out of your house,” she said.
In the past, contractors often had to educate clients about the value of universal design, a term that covers barrier-free access for people of all ages and abilities, but a growing number of adults 50 and older are aware of such modifications, said Abbie Sladick, a contractor in Naples who specializes in universal design. Some of these people are providing care to others, and some have their own health problems, she said.
“My clients never want to face the hard decisions they made with their family members,” she said. “They want to stay safe and enjoy a beautiful house for a long time.”
About 80 percent of Americans age 45 and older prefer to “age in place” — that is, to remain in their current homes and communities, according to a recent AARP study. Manufacturers and contractors are responding with new products and technologies.
“Boomers are more likely to improve than move,” said Dan Bawden, a Houston contractor. Building or remodeling with wider doorways, improved lighting, stepless entries and kitchens with waist-level access and pull-out storage often saves money in the long run, he said, adding, “An assisted living facility costs $60,000 a year and up — or you can spend that amount once and stay in the house you love for years.”
A stepless entry is also handy for parents pushing a baby stroller, he said, while the lever-style faucets that accommodate low dexterity are also useful when your hands are sticky with cookie dough.
Until recently, universal design was a neglected approach in the design industry.
“Even 10 years ago, products for bath and kitchen were very institutional-looking with a lot of stainless steel and the stigma of disability,” said Rosemary Bakker, an interior designer and the author of “The AARP Guide to Revitalizing Your Home.” “Now, U.D. is getting cutting edge, even trendy.”
With an eye on the 77 million baby boomers, the first of which turned 65 in January, manufacturers have introduced grab bars that glow in the dark, furniture with higher seats and firmer cushions and rising-wall bathtubs with cascading waterfalls (which sell for $9,000).
In the last year, Masco Cabinetry, which is based in Ann Arbor, Mich., and makes kitchen and bath cabinets, countertops and vanities, has added models that reduce bending or reaching and provide easier storage access.
“Baby boomers are caring for their parents, and it’s been an eye-opener,” said Sarah Reep, the company’s director of designer relations. “They want to be prepared, and since this is a generation that has always fostered change, we’ve taken it to heart.”
Cash Anthony, 62, and her husband, Tim Hogan, 56, of Houston, made accessibility a priority in remodeling two bathrooms in their 1954 ranch. “I’ve had seven back surgeries and my late mother-in-law used a wheelchair, so I know how difficult it can be to get around the house,” said Ms. Anthony, a writer.
Seven months and $80,000 later, one bathroom now has a glass-enclosed, curbless shower, the other a step-in bathtub with vibrating air jets. “You get in, fill it up, read your book while the water ebbs and flows,” Ms. Anthony said. “We’re not tub people, but we love it.”
In January, the National Association of Home Builders’ International Builders’ Show devoted a day to universal design. “The buzz was just amazing,” said Jeffrey S. Jenkins, director of the trade association’s 50-plus Housing Council. “The word is U.D. is the ‘new green.’ ”
The builders association offers certification as an aging-in-place specialist, to train builders, remodelers and others in universal design principles. In recent years, Mr. Jenkins said, 3,700 people have been certified. The rise of multigenerational households has also helped fuel interest in universal design.
Scott Bain, 52, an engineer in Raleigh, N.C., is consulting with contractors about an addition to his family’s two-story Colonial so that someday his 83-year-old mother can move in. An elevator would connect an underground garage with the first-floor master suite and the second-floor media room. “At the moment, my mother can manage the stairs in her townhouse, but we’re trying to be pro-active so we aren’t caught in an emergency,” he said.
Mr. Bain added that the family hoped to pay for the remodeling with the sale of his mother’s townhouse. The addition would also suit the Bains as they grow older.
Industry experts say the best time to ageproof a house is during building or remodeling — before disabilities require it.
“This is really ‘design for all,’ and it’s starting to go mainstream because you end up with a gorgeous, light-filled home that will keep you safe for years,” said Ms. Bakker. “It’s just better design for everyone.