Two little steps were becoming a problem for Cathy Wronkovich.
Those steps, which lead down from her porch to her front walk, were just steep enough to prove unsettling for her and her older visitors. She found herself grasping a porch post for security every time she descended the steps, and she said her brother-in-law almost fell on an icy day.
Wronkovich is a retired nurse in her late 70s who knows the downward health spiral that can be triggered in older people by a fall, so she’s wary of such hazards. But she wants to stay in her Kent condominium as long as she can.
“So I said to myself, I need to have a rail,” she said. And while she was having that work done, she added some safety features to her bathroom, too.
Wronkovich is among homeowners who are making renovations to their homes so they can stay in them as they age. Some undertake major remodeling projects, such as adding a first-floor master suite. Others, like Wronkovich, make a few small modifications that let them feel more secure and comfortable.
Eighty percent of people 45 and older say they want to remain in their homes and communities as long as they can, AARP reports.
That makes economic sense, said Martin Caruso, a Copley Township architect who is also certified as an aging-in-place specialist by the National Association of Home Builders. Staying in a home is cheaper than moving to an assisted living or nursing facility, he said.
“I think it gives them a better sense of well-being, too,” he said.
Remodelers believe the aging baby boom generation will feed a demand for specialists in that area. The home builders association has responded by developing the certification course for aging-in-place specialists — mostly remodelers, but also general contractors, designers, architects and health-care professionals.
Akron builder Fred Borisuk, who holds the certification, started a division of his general contracting company called Adaptive Living Partners that’s dedicated specifically to modifying homes so people can continue to live there. He’d been doing work such as widening doorways and building ramps for years, he said, but his own mother’s health decline after she fell and hit her head in a hotel bathroom encouraged him to focus more sharply on adaptive remodeling.
Borisuk said most of his clients are adults in their 50s or 60s who want to help their elderly parents remain in their homes. Too often, though, homeowners don’t seek those modifications until they’re forced to because of a fall or other health challenge.
But thinking ahead and making small changes might have prevented that fall in the first place, he said. “Why do it when it’s an emergency?”
That was Wronkovich’s thinking when she hired Borisuk’s company to add a handrail for her front steps and upgrade her bathroom with grab bars, a padded shower seat and a hand-held shower on a sliding bar. Eventually she’d like to add a cutout in her tub so she doesn’t have to step over the side, perhaps with a watertight door that would let her fill the tub with water.
She sees those as preventive measures. “I think of all these little things to make [my home] safer,” she said. “… I like to see things before they happen.”
Falls are the biggest risk to older people, so making modifications aimed at preventing them is a smart place to start, said Julie Brandle, a certified aging-in-place specialist at Metis Construction Services in Kent, the company she owns with her husband, Steve.
That might involve adding railings and grab bars, as Wronkovich did, or eliminating abrupt flooring transitions that could be a tripping hazard, Brandle said. She and Caruso said even small changes can help, such as eliminating throw rugs, cleaning up clutter and lighting stairwells, perhaps with simple tap lights.
Older homes often share issues that make them difficult for older occupants, including basement laundries, narrow doorways, shower-tub combinations and second-floor bedrooms and bathrooms. Sometimes overcoming those issues requires a significant expense, such as building an addition or installing a residential elevator, the specialists say. But sometimes there are more budget-friendly alternatives.
For example, an extra bedroom or part of the garage might be converted to a laundry area — or even a closet, if stacking appliances are used, Borisuk said. Offset hinges can be installed to allow a door to open a bit wider. The bottom of a bathtub can be given a sanded finish to make it less slippery, and special wall anchors can be used to install grab bars on fiberglass tub or shower walls without the need to open up walls and add blocking. Borisuk has even rehung a back door so it swung in the opposite direction and blocked the opening to the basement stairs, so the homeowner wouldn’t tumble down the steps if she lost her balance while she was entering the house.
Larger-scale remodeling projects can also be done at a reasonable cost by reconfiguring spaces in the home instead of adding on, Caruso said. He’s working on a project for a client in her mid-80s that involves converting part of her living room into a bedroom and turning a wet bar into a master bath.
A kitchen might also be upgraded with pull-out trays that swing down from upper cupboards and up from lower cabinets, making the contents easier to reach, said Brenda McShaffrey, who does marketing for Adaptive Living Partners for her brother, Borisuk.
And the modifications needn’t draw attention to themselves, Brandle said. Even grab bars are being manufactured in decorative styles that look more homey than institutional.
Caruso said he often brings up modifications to clients when they’re discussing a remodeling project, even if those clients are middle aged and in good health. Sometimes they’re resistant, because they don’t want to think about getting older, he said.
But he points out that the need for accessible design can arise at any time, maybe because of a broken leg or an illness. And improving a home’s accessibility makes it easier for people with walkers, wheelchairs or other physical challenges to visit, he said.
Caruso believes modifications can increase the value of a home, especially now that the population is aging.
But to Borisuk, the biggest value lies in the homeowner’s peace of mind.
Providing that to clients is gratifying, he said.
“I think we’re saving lives and we’ve saving money,” he said. “And we’re helping people stay in their homes.”
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also become a fan on Facebook at http://tinyurl.com/mbbreck, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckenridge and read her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/mary-beth.