Home, Safe Home

When you plan improvement projects, make sure to include features that will make your residence livable in your later years

By Ellen Hoffman

When you envision your ideal retirement home, what do you see? A two- or three-story townhouse overlooking the ninth hole of a golf course? A beach cottage with 20 steps between you and the surf? Or do you imagine spending your golden years in your current home –- with the bedrooms and bathrooms upstairs and the front steps missing a railing?

A growing number of experts in the health, homebuilding, and retirement-planning fields suggest pre-retirees should figure out how their fantasy home will accommodate the likely reality of reduced physical capacity. Louis Tenenbaum, an independent-living strategist based in Potomac, Md., urges clients, especially those in their 50s, to start planning now so that by the time they retire, they'll have a home that meets not just their budget and location preference but their physical requirements as well.

One person who has done so is Susan Womble in Chevy Chase, Md. She's only 51 and won't retire for a few years, but she's already planning for "aging in place." When Womble, who works at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C., went house-hunting in 1998, she looked for a place where she could live comfortably and safely for the rest of her life -- even if she developed such common aging problems as arthritis or weakened eyesight.

PEACE OF MIND.

  After finding a house that would allow her to live on one floor, Womble had it renovated to add a deck for easy access to the outdoors; 36-inch-wide doorways and halls that could accommodate a wheelchair if necessary; a kitchen stove, bathroom vanity, and other features that could be reached from a wheelchair; and an entrance with no steps.

"When you're in your 50s and you're renovating your house, you really should pay attention to these things," Womble says. "I advocate to my friends in my age bracket that they should plan [their home] for the future, as we do financially and a number of other ways."

While Womble's renovations might seem extreme, planning for so many possibilities gave her the peace of mind that in all likelihood she won't be forced to leave the home she loves. But more than peace of mind is at stake, according to Manassas (Va.) remodeling contractor Vince Butler. The types of changes Womble made are much more economical if they're done as part of an already-planned renovation.

ALL-IN-ONE JOB.

  A case in point: installing even something as seemingly minor as a grab bar in a shower. "When you're framing out a bathroom, it's a simple process to reinforce the walls so that grab bars could be mounted to a solid structure. It takes a $20 to $30 piece of hardware, and maybe 15 minutes of a carpenter's time," says Butler. But if you don't think ahead and decide later that you want grab bars, removing tile and plaster and then doing the reinforcement "could take a half a day or more," and be much more expensive, he points out.

Womble isn't alone in her desire to stay in her own home. A study done in 2000 by AARP, the organization for people 50 and older, found that 89% of respondents 55 or older said "they would like to remain in their current residence as long as possible," and that even if they needed help in caring for themselves as they aged, they would prefer not to move.

Yet your current home can turn into a dangerous and confining place as you age. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), one-third of all people 65 and older fall each year, and up to two-thirds of them sustain the injury in their own home.

AGING IN PLACE.

  Tenenbaum says forward-thinking pre-retirees such as Womble have been a tiny minority. But that may be changing. One sign of the growing interest in aging in place is that contractors are now being trained in such renovation procedures. Sponsored by the Remodelors' Council of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), the training has produced 250 graduates so far. To find a professional who holds the "Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist" designation awarded to those who complete the training successfully, contact the NAHB's Remodelors' Council.

Another indication of growing interest in convincing people to prepare their homes for retirement has been the creation of the National Advisory Council on Aging in Place, an eclectic group of more than 30 organizations and businesses that's sponsoring its first National Aging in Place Week, Nov. 9-15. Members of the council range from the National Association of Home Builders, a trade association for the homebuilding industry, to advocates for the elderly such as the National Council on Aging, and the National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association (NRMLA).

During the week, some council members will sponsor public events in at least six cities, including visits to homes that have been remodeled and seminars on home modifications and options for financing the work. (See the NRMLA Web site for a list and description of the events in Seattle, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Boston, Buffalo, and Charleston, South Carolina.)

CONTROL ISSUES.

  As part of the public-education efforts, the NRMLA has created another Web site that includes case studies of people who have modified their homes to make them safer, as well as illustrated examples of how you can improve your own house, particularly the kitchen and bathroom. You can get a checklist for assessing your own home, plus specific suggestions for improvements, by going to the AARP's Web site and typing in "home modification."

Tenenbaum acknowledges that many people find it difficult to think ahead about the physical realities of getting older. Yet in retirement, as in your working years, he says, "the issue really is control. If you want to control your future, you must lay the groundwork. Increased longevity is a wonderful bonus our society provides to us." Furthermore, the improvements you make in your house will start to benefit you immediately by making it safer for everyone -- and if changes are made in connection with other renovations, "the cost is almost zero."

On the other hand, should you be forced to move, the cost is high: You lose both the control over your life and, in Tenenbaum's words, the "American dream of owning your own home."

In addition to writing Your Retirement for BusinessWeek Online, Hoffman is the author of The Retirement Catch-Up Guide and Bankroll Your Future Retirement with Help from Uncle Sam. You can contact her through her Web site

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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