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A Colorado Home Is Ready for Its Owners’ Old Age

LIVERMORE, Colo. -- IF there were a glitzy, razzle-dazzle competition for cheerleading captain of the Aging in Place movement — and given the boomer resistance to anything to do with aging, there certainly should be — Cynthia Leibrock, designer, consultant and Harvard instructor, would be a contender, strutting down the barrier-free, skid-free runway of a well-lighted arena; tossing an easy-grip baton in the air; blinding the judges with a smile and that fascinatingly taut face.

In the marketing minefield of design for aging, Ms. Leibrock knows what many do not: It may be good for you, but if it doesn’t look good, nobody’s interested.

Consider her home, a flashy glass-and-steel structure in the Colorado Rockies, with fabulous gewgaws that homeowners of any age would covet: The high-end kitchen has a Gaggenau magnetic induction cooktop (you won’t burn if you touch it, Ms. Leibrock points out) and a Gaggenau column refrigerator with shallow shelves (older people have diminished olfactory senses, she says, so food needs to be closer). The guest bath has a reflecting pool and a steam shower with a redwood bench; the frankly un-beautiful mechanical lift that gets one in and out of the ample tub is hidden in the ceiling. Should support bars be needed near the toilet someday, the required engineering is concealed behind the wall. No complicated installation is required: snap the tiles off, put the bars on. And they’re good-looking bars, too.

Universal design, a movement promoting the idea that all structures, public and private, should be equally accessible to everyone, has been around for many years. It is rooted in the work of Ronald Lawrence Mace, an architect and industrial designer with polio who helped develop the country’s first accessible building code, paving the way for the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Aging in place, a related but more recent movement, which holds that homes should be built so owners can continue to live in them despite age-related problems, has been driven by the aging boomer population.

The problem is that from a marketing and design point of view, the word “aging” is still the kiss of death. In a culture where Botox, Cialis and plastic surgery support the illusion that mortality is for other people, who wants a bathroom that looks as if it belongs in a rehab center?

Ms. Leibrock’s approach is to market her work in terms of great design and good health. “Boomers are all about choice and being positive,” she says. “I have a steam oven, so I can eat more pasta or steam in all the nutrients. I have an aromatherapy steam shower. If you have a cold, that’s very healing.”

Is this a business? You bet it is. Ms. Leibrock has written three books, including “Design Details for Health” and “Beautiful Universal Design” (written with James Evan Terry), and her daily consulting fee can go as high as $2,000, although she adds that she has worked without pay for those who cannot pay. Her newly renovated home here, Green Mountain Ranch, is intended to be a showcase, laboratory and training center for those interested in universal design. Ms. Leibrock, who has consulted for Kohler and Gaggenau, says each has donated about $50,000 in products to her home; about 10 other manufacturers also contributed items.

Why would they do that?

“I’ve been in 60 magazines and 8 books over the years,” Ms. Leibrock says. “They know my works, they just get exposure.”

(This, it turns out, is a bit of cheerleader hyperbole: It does not mean that 60 different designs of Ms. Leibrock’s have been published — in fact, her own house has never been published — but that images of details she has designed have appeared in print frequently.), Ms. Leibrock’s Web site, features the sort of portrait you’d expect of a plastic surgeon rather than a woman who has consulted on accessibility standards for the United States Air Force. At 60, she is in admirable shape. Miss the turn for her house and she gets on her $5,000 custom Dean titanium bike to round you up, already suited up in her cold-weather gear for her customary morning ride. The fact that a bike is unlikely to overtake the reporter’s Hummer is not a deterrent. Ms. Leibrock is one determined gal.

She also has great sound bites, which she points out, lest a reporter, lulled into soporific indifference by the music of the Spa channel and the Feng Shui Pure 2 fountain at her home, miss them.

“I’ve got a great one-liner for you,” Ms. Leibrock says. “The line is, ‘I want people to know no matter whether they have mental or physical disabilities’ — change that word to differences — ‘they are only disabled if they can’t do what they want to do. Architecture can eliminate disability by design.’ You see my point. If you are in a house where you can do what you want to do, you’re not disabled anymore.”

And a little later, “Could you mention in the story?”

Ms. Leibrock is aging awfully well herself. Has she had any work?

“I’m not telling you,” she says. But after a little nudging: “I had a peel. And one Botox, about four shots a year. I wanted to look better, not younger.” And in a note, later: “I forgot one thing. (Really.) When they did my peel, they took out a fat pocket below each lower lid.”

But she has a spiritual side as well.

“I designed a kitchen with Julia Child for an exhibit at the Smithsonian,” Ms. Leibrock says. “I’ve been teaching at Harvard for 18 years. This doesn’t happen to an interior designer from Pocatello, Idaho, but it happened to me, because I’ve maintained a very tight sense of mission. It’s my faith that drives me, my prayer time. I’m a very organized pray-er. I journal, I write a letter to God every morning.”

The hillside home Ms. Leibrock shares with her husband, Frank, a retired engineer, is not wheelchair accessible, but it is wheelchairadaptable, Ms. Leibrock says. Designing a home with an eye toward easy renovation is key to aging in place.

And while she used high-end appliances and furnishings, she stresses that universal design need not be expensive. Her Gaggenau induction cooktop would sell for $5,600, but one could buy an induction cooktop by Hob for $680, she says.

Nonetheless, she can’t help but point out the quartersawn maple woodwork in her husband’s den. With two Murphy beds and a barrier-free bathroom that has a wheelchair accessible toiletinthe shower, it could easily be converted to a suite for someone who is wheelchair dependent.

There are no grab bars in the bathroom, but if the day comes when they’re needed, it will be easy enough to install them, because beneath the Ann Sachs tiles, the bathroom walls have been reinforced with 3/4-inch plywood.

And check out the wall between the bathroom and the den.

“This is a movable wall, so whenever I get so decrepit I need a caretaker, they can take me off the Murphy bed and wheel you onto a gurney or in a wheelchair,” Ms. Leibrock says, in a mildly disconcerting midsentence pronoun switcheroo. “These doors allow wheelchair access.”

The reporter sees a wheelchair in the corner of the bathroom. Shall we put the key in the ignition and fire that baby up?

“Just don’t hit my wood wall or I’ll kill you,” Ms. Leibrock says.

Why, you might wonder, would anyone — especially someone who was twice ranked No. 1 in age 30 and older tennis doubles in Utah — be so hung up on wheelchair access?

Ms. Leibrock, whose father was a mineralogist and whose mother was a nurse at the Craig Hospital in Denver, a leading rehabilitation center, has a ready answer: “I have a brother who has schizophrenia, and he was inappropriately housed in institutions and nursing homes when I was younger, and I saw how much suffering that caused.”

“The honest truth is the gross things, the aesthetics of rehab hospitals repulsed me,” she adds. “I wanted to stay as far away from it as possible.”

Ms. Leibrock, a member of the American Society of Interior Designers, chose a career in design so she could make things beautiful.

Then, about 25 years ago, she became involved with a Bible study group and felt a need to do another kind of work. “There was nothing in the Bible that says thou shalt not design interior design,” Ms. Leibrock says. “But it was not right for me. I was just determined to create environments that were supportive for older and disabled people.”

When Ms. Leibrock and her husband bought their home in 1994, for $280,000, she was determined to create an aging-in-place design free of any hospital or institutional vibe. The one dedicated piece of medical equipment built into the house was the lift in the guest bathroom.

Even so, the renovation, which Ms. Leibrock says cost just under $600,000 (not including products donated by manufacturers), includes some nifty universal-design features: a computer-controlled Proliphix thermostat, which can be adjusted from the road, a wheelchair or bed. Kitchen cabinets with a 10-inch removable drawer in the kick space, so that they and the counters can be lowered for wheelchair users. Recessed door mats and bath mats.

“The worst thing you can do is throw a bath mat on the floor,” Ms. Leibrock says. “Older people shuffle along and drag their feet. All it takes is a quarter-inch change of elevation to be a tripping hazard.”

There are still plenty of stairs in this house: there are stairs at the front entrance, which adjoins the glass-walled dining room that looks out on the mountains. But there is also a step-free entrance at the side of the house, via the garage. The step down into the dining room is removable and was designed to accommodate a wheelchair lift.

Ms. Leibrock’s Web site lists information not only on all the products in her home, but on the ways in which other homes can be adapted for aging in place. But persuading people — even those closest to her — to make such changes has been difficult.

Ms. Leibrock’s father suffered from Alzheimer’s and her mother had back trouble exacerbated by lifting her father on and off the toilet. Ms. Leibrock proposed combining their two small bathrooms into a larger one, with a higher toilet with grab bars, a sink and a toilet that could be used from a wheelchair.

“If there had been modification of toilets, she might have avoided the injuries,” Ms. Leibrock says. “But he wouldn’t put in grab bars. He didn’t want the stigma. Even with me, Miss Expert, in this area for 30 years.”

She must be frustrated.

“The biggest challenge of my career is to create consumer demand,” she says. “I could sell it to you for someone else, if you were the mother of a disabled child, but the hard sell is selling it to you so you don’t end up in a nursing home.”

If Ms. Leibrock is in a friend’s home and she sees dangers, does she tell them?

“If they ask,” she says. “I couldn’t sell my own dad — how am I going to sell my own girlfriends?”

She continues: “I offer tours of this house. People have aha! moments. ‘Well, I wouldn’t mind having an aromatherapy steam shower.’ Those are the teachable moments. That’s what this house is all about: Why not do it, if it can be exciting and still help you age in place?”

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