For Lizbeth Chapman, IT was a dream come true. Five years ago she packed up her busy life and home-based financial public-relations business and moved from Boston to a house in Wellfleet, Mass., on Cape Cod, where she intends to spend the rest of her life.
Then a minor disaster hit. Less than three months after purchasing the house, Chapman, then 57, broke her ankle and ended up in a nonwalking cast. "I was virtually immobile for three months," she says. "The house became a prison." She couldn't get her wheelchair from her car up the gravel driveway to her house. There were three steps up to the front door. The doors and hallways were too narrow, and a standard wheelchair didn't fit in the five-foot-square bathroom.
Chapman considers herself lucky. Her temporary disability opened her eyes to the liabilities of her dream home -- and did so in enough time for her to do something about it. She leveled the 55-year-old cottage and, last month, watched as builders started framing a new Greek Revival home designed to accommodate her, come what may, as she gets older. "My new house will be small and very open with lots of 'aging-in-place' decisions I made that will allow me to live here for the rest of my life," she says.
Retirement planning, for most of us, means financial planning -- in other words, having enough money to maintain our standard of living when we retire. But equally important is planning for a home that's adapted to ease the inconveniences of getting older, such as arthritis or diminished sight. Most important, it should be fully accessible to you should you need a wheelchair. Ideally, your plans -- like your portfolio -- should be in place by the time you retire. For one thing, the modifications you'll probably want will be less expensive if they're part of new construction or a major remodel than if they're done on an emergency basis. It's also easier to take on a big construction project at age 55 than 75.
Besides building or remodeling a home, you can buy into a senior or adult community designed to be more accessible than traditional housing. Rarely, you might find a house that has been built or modified to suit the special needs of older people. That's what happened to Rose Gorospe, a 61-year-old nurse who moved into her Murrieta (Calif.) house in April. "I wasn't specifically looking for a house designed for elderly or disabled people," she says. "But when I came across this house, I fell in love with all the features. I just knew that it was ideal for a person my age."
What Gorospe didn't know was that her tract home had won an award from the National Association of Home Builders in 2001 for its "Aging in Place" design. Also called universal design, inclusive design, or barrier-free design, the concept is that people can live in the same place despite changes in their physical condition. Gorospe's house has no steps to climb or thresholds to trip over. That includes the front door, making it equally welcoming for visitors with baby strollers or in wheelchairs. The 10 doorways in the house are all at least three feet wide. Lower kitchen cabinets have drawers instead of shelves, and those under the sink and stovetop can be converted from storage space to knee space for those who prefer to clean and cook while seated.
Most people aren't going to build or find a custom house for their retirement. In its most recent survey of older Americans regarding housing preferences, AARP found that 63% of the participants over age 45 believed they would always live in their current residence, and of those who didn't, one in three said they had already made plans for the future. Among respondents 55 and older, 89% said they wanted to stay where they were for as long as possible.
If you count yourself in that group, you should plan to remodel with an eye toward your later years. That doesn't just mean installing grab bars in the bathroom and ramps at your front entrance. (If you're remodeling a bath, though, you might want to reinforce the walls so you can put in a grab bar later if you need it.) If you haven't budgeted for a makeover, consider this: Care in a nursing home costs an average of $60,000 a year.
Jack and Julia Hamilton are in the midst of remodeling the two-story Sugar Land (Tex.) house they've lived in for nearly 30 years. They're moving their bedroom to the first floor and redoing the first-floor kitchen, bath, and den, and laying tile instead of carpet throughout the lower floor. They've included lots of universal design features, including wider pocket doorways that slide into a wall for the bathroom, a walk-in whirlpool bathtub with a door, and an adjoining shower large enough to accommodate a wheelchair. "We were going to remodel anyway," says Jack, 64. "Along the way we decided if we were going to live here until we die, we should make the house work for us." The cost? "No more than any other type of remodeling," he says. (The walk-in jacuzzi, he admits, was a splurge.)
Universal design also shouldn't cost much more if you plan for it before building a house, rather than adding features one by one as you need them. The age-in-place touches in Gorospe's house cost the builder just $5,000 more, says Susan Mack, an occupational therapist who founded Homes for Easy Living, the Murrieta (Calif.) universal design consultancy that designed the house. (The builder charged the original buyers a $10,000 premium over the same house without the features.)
The trade-off for universal design in new construction is sometimes the loss of space in traditional living areas. Larger bathrooms and wider hallways take up square footage that builders would prefer for bigger foyers and great rooms. "But when you get older," Mack asks, "would you rather have that extra 12 inches in the bathroom or in the wet bar?"
If you're planning to make age-in-place improvements, you'll need a contractor to handle big jobs, such as ripping out a bathtub and replacing it with an accessible shower. But there are lots of little changes around the house you can do on your own, or with the help of a handyman. Add a shelf or table outside the front door to hold packages while you fumble with the keys. Change all doorknobs to lever handles, making them easier to open. Replacing the standard hinges with offset hinges on interior doors can add up to 2 1/2 inches to the opening by swinging the door completely out of the doorway. Or remove the door entirely.
In the kitchen, change knobs on drawers and cabinets to D-shaped pulls, which are easier to grasp. Get a color that contrasts with the cabinet to make them easier to see. Change the faucet to the single-handle lever type. Get an extra-long hose for the faucet sprayer so you can fill big pots while they're sitting on the stove.
In the bathroom, you can add an extender under the toilet to raise it to a height that's easier to use. About those grab bars: They now come in designer colors and finishes, or look like ordinary towel bars. Another idea is to add wainscot. The right kind of wood molding at the top can end up being a grab bar.
Most universal design changes are subtle, so don't worry that your house will end up looking like a nursing home. You'll enjoy many of the features -- amenities such as massage showers, bidet-type toilet seats that wash and dry you, and upper kitchen cabinets that pull down to counter height -- while you're young. But you'll really appreciate them when you're older.
By Larry Armstrong