Don't wait until retirement, experts say. Incorporate universal design principles into every remodeling project.

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Aging in place — rather than packing up and moving to a specialized retirement community — is the newest housing trend for older Americans. Aging in place preserves access to friends and familiar services. Plus keeping your larger house means you have room for visiting family and friends, or — if your health requires it — a live-in caregiver.

Joseph Irons
Joseph Irons

A recent report by AARP found that 90 percent of retirees want to stay in their homes as they age. And in the past 20 years an entire subsection of the remodeling field has grown up to make this possible. Designers, architects and contractors are training to become Certified Aging-in-Place Specialists, qualified to help people make their homes friendly to people of all ages and abilities.

“People love their houses and they love their neighborhoods,” says Joseph Irons, president of Irons Brothers Construction in Shoreline, who received CAPS training early in his career. “It’s often much healthier for people to age in place.”

Getting started on planning

You don’t have to be retired to start planning for aging in place. In fact, Irons recommends to clients of all ages that they incorporate universal design principles into every remodeling project that they do. “If you do universal design right, it will look just like good design, not like the home is a care facility.”

Irons put his CAPS training to use at his own home seven years ago after he sustained injuries in a motorcycle accident. During his recovery, he dealt with mobility challenges from a neck brace, crutches and arm sling.  “Having wider doorways, motion-activated lights and easy-to-grasp handles made my recovery a lot easier,” he says.

Karl Norsk, owner of Norsk Design-Build in Redmond, recommends working with your architect or designer to find out as much as possible about the many universal design elements that can be included in your remodel. These include the “comfort height” toilets specified by the Americans with Disabilities Act for workplaces and public bathrooms. Their seats are from two to four inches higher than the standard 15-inch high toilet seat.

“ADA toilets are nearly standard now,” Norsk says. “Everyone loves them. And barrier-free showers are very popular. You can have them installed with a door and later, if necessary, remove the door entirely to allow access for someone in a wheelchair.

Designers who use universal design principles will avoid hard-to-see changes of height on countertops and flooring. They’ll select light switches, cabinet hardware and appliances that are easy to reach and use.

If you already have a health condition that would be helped by remodeling, an occupational therapist can offer advice on specific changes to your home. In some cases, they even take measurements to customize the installation of lighting or grab bars to individual needs.

Iron notes that while people are often reluctant to spend money on these home improvements for themselves, they’ll do it to help others. “They remodel so friends or family with health issues will be able to keep visiting them,” he says.

This curbless glass-enclosed shower was installed with a HydroBlok linear drain and waterproofing system. (Norsk Design-Build)
This curbless glass-enclosed shower was installed with a HydroBlok linear drain and waterproofing system. (Norsk Design-Build)

The first-floor solution

For many people, an easy solution to aging in place is found right on the first floor of their existing houses.

“Many of our aging-in-place projects involve redesigning the main floor of a home,” Norsk says. “We remodel a room to be an office now but we do it in such a way that it could easily become a main-floor bedroom when needed.”

As part of a main-floor remodel, the bathroom is upgraded to be wheelchair accessible and the existing tub and shower may be replaced with a barrier-free shower. “Grab bars may not be immediately necessary, but we document where the studs in the wall are so it will be easy to install grab bars later,” Norsk says.

It’s also possible to make the kitchen safer and easier to use. Solutions include French-door ovens and ovens placed at a convenient height so there is no need to bend over to remove a hot pot. A variety of cabinetry solutions can raise or lower appliances to counter height.

Norsk notes that many remodels for aging in place include creating a small suite that can be used for guests or for a live-in caregiver. “Having these suites make your home very popular in the marketplace,” he says.

One additional advantage of remodeling aging in place is that hallways, doors and rooms can accommodate medical equipment — such as medical beds, electric-powered lift chairs, wheelchairs and scooters — should you or your visitors need it. Travis Elley, owner of Access Medical Equipment in Seattle, encourages people to come in and try out equipment in their showroom. “Our chairs come in a range of sizes and colors to fit people’s needs and their houses,” he says. “You can always rent to see what works for you.”

The Seattle Home Show Feb. 23 — March 3 at CenturyLink Field Event Center features many solutions for aging in place.