Aging in Place

A column from Nation’s Building News , an online weekly publication of the National Association of Home Builders. By Dan Bawden, May 30, 2003

According to the AARP, more and more senior home owners are deciding to remain in their homes and age-in-place rather than seek assisted living. To do this they need to modify their houses to increase access and maneuverability. These modifications range from the installation of bath and shower grab bars and adjusting countertop heights to the creation of multifunctional first floor master suites and installing private elevators. Aging-in-place is about enhancing independent living through remodeling and re-thinking the way we build new homes in this country.

There are two general types of changes that we’re talking about: Modifying existing housing and incorporating these principles into new construction. Typical modification to existing homes include lever handles on faucets and doors, grab bars in all bathrooms, curbless showers, lowering light switches and raising outlets, widening bathroom doorways, using higher contrast color schemes and better lighting in kitchen and baths, multiple height surfaces like countertops, pull-down and pull-out cabinet shelves, and stair lifts, to name a few.

On the new construction side, aging-in-place principles include all of the above plus grading/landscaping entry points to create zero-step entrances, stacking closets to enable future elevators, lowering window heights, visitable/accessible floor plans, universal design kitchens and bathrooms, and better lighting especially exterior lighting at paths and entrances.   Remember, older clients who are building their final “dream home” will be much happier with it (and with you as their builder) if it was built with aging-in-place design principles allowing independence.

This was brought home to me literally when my 80 year old mother-in-law came to live with my family while we modified her own home to fit her abilities and lifestyle. She suffers from acute arthritis and she is very afraid of falling down. In the kitchen we installed lots of pullout drawers instead of cabinet doors and added a raised dishwasher so she doesn’t have to lean over so far. Lighting is also important to help her maintain her independence. We added bright lights under the upper cabinets, recessed can lights, and Solatube skylights that bring in a tremendous amount of light without making the room hot.  In the bathroom we added a nice-looking clamp-on rail bar to the bathtub and another wall-mount grab bar carefully anchored to the tile walls. The important thing is that none of this looks like it belongs in a hospital.  No “institutional” looking products are used.

You can learn these construction principles in the new Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist designation program that was developed through a partnership between NAHB and the AARP.  The three-day CAPS program teaches the strategies and techniques for designing and building aesthetically enriching, barrier-free living environments.  It goes beyond design to address the codes and standards, common remodeling expenditures and projects, product ideas and resources needed to provide comprehensive and practical aging-in-place solutions. Since the program started a year ago over 300 contractors, builders, physical therapists, and designers have already taken the CAPS courses, and many more are lined up to take them this year.  They will be available at the International Builders Show in Las Vegas in January, and the Remodelers Show in Indianapolis in October, as well as many local builders associations.

You may have already noticed the increasing demand for changes to homes by clients who want to be able to remain in their homes as they age.  If you haven’t witnessed this first hand, it is probably looming on the horizon for your parents or another family member. Either way it’s coming and coming fast.  You want to be on the cutting edge of this trend or you’ll be left in the dust. You can get more information about upcoming CAPS training sessions at, or by calling 1-800-368-5242 (ask for tanya)