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Aging in Your Own Space

Use these remodeling ideas now to live
independently later

It started with a simple plan to replace a broken toilet. But as so many renovation stories go, one idea led to another, and soon Cash Anthony and Tim Hogan began to plan an entire bathroom remodel.

Home_Garden housing

Aging in place is about comfort as well as avoiding falls. — Lisa F. Young/Alamy

See Also: Rightsizing Your Home

Before even talking with their contractor, Anthony, 62, had realized they needed to do more than just pretty up the space. Anthony, who has had seven surgeries in two years related to degenerative disc disease, had already seen small problems with their current bathroom design.

"I began to realize the handles on things were not as convenient as they might be," says Anthony, of Houston. "So now our new plumbing is all single handle that turns on the water as well as adjusts the temperature." They also told the contractor they wanted to install grab bars in the shower and near the toilet. And they wanted enough room to maneuver a wheelchair, and no difficult-to-roll-over lip at the shower stall entrance.

But if these descriptions make you think her home now resembles a nursing home, think again.

"Oh, there's no sense of sterility here," says Anthony as she describes the bathroom, which includes some design elements of a London subway station: white subway tiles on the floor and walls. The countertops are bright red, and on the wall opposite the toilet is a 4-by-5-foot tile mural depicting foxes.

In fact, unless you were looking for it, the accessibility features would be hard to distinguish because they are so well incorporated into the design. And that's exactly what should happen when you do a remodel that helps people stay in their homes as they grow older, says Karen Richmond, a certified aging-in-place specialist and designer with the Neil Kelly Company in Portland, Ore.

"The goal is to create a comfort level for people of all ages, whether it's the toddler or the mom with the broken leg, or it's the grandmother who needs some assistance or help," Richmond says.

A boomer-driven trend

It's a concept sure to grow in popularity as boomers get older but have no intention of being aged out of their homes. Nearly 75 percent of people hope to stay in their homes as they age, according to a November 2010 poll of 1,616 people age 45 and older conducted by AARP. And the older people get, the more likely they are to want to stay put.

Wanting this and making it happen, however, are two different things.

The fact is that nearly 1.7 million Americans live in nursing homes and 1 million people reside in assisted living facilities, according to the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging. And according to a recent study done by Cornell University, more than half of low-needs nursing home residents — an estimated 100,000 people — could instead be living at home if they only had the right support system in place. Having a house that is safe for them to maneuver is one of those criteria.

Why safety matters

Aging in place isn't just about comfort. In very basic terms, it's about avoiding falls. If an older person can avoid falling and breaking a hip, he can prevent a cascade of other health problems.

Problem is, keeping your balance gets harder as you age, says Diane Genaze, director of physical therapy at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and a physical therapist. Aging in general changes the number of muscle fibers we all have, reducing muscle mass, Genaze says. Diabetes can affect your sense of touch, so you're no longer as sensitive to the way your foot hits a step as you used to be. Dizziness and inner ear disorders can alter your sense of balance. Arthritis makes you protect the joints that hurt, leading to reduced range of motion. Vision deteriorates, and you need more light not only to read the newspaper, but also to see your way to a dark bathroom in the middle of the night.

And then there's the simple matter of flexibility. "When you're younger, if you lose your balance you're going to readjust the position of your feet and use your core muscles to hold yourself up," Genaze says. "But older people have pronated feet that are stiff. You put all that together, and it doesn't matter that that throw rug was there for 20 years. It only takes once to slip and break your hip."

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