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Preparing a Home for Golden Years

Accessibility, safety and financial considerations are key factors to take into account. And, experts say, there's no reason to forgo style.

Andrew Borislow, founder of AcessAll, inspects the Lower Gwynedd home of Lisa Meade to see if it is wheelchair accessible. He is checking the height of a kitchen counter. (Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel / Inquirer)
Andrew Borislow, founder of AcessAll, inspects the Lower Gwynedd home of Lisa Meade to see if it is wheelchair accessible. He is checking the height of a kitchen counter. (Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel / Inquirer)Read moreSharon Gekoski-Kimmel

Whether you're moving, remodeling or staying put, planning a retirement home is an opportunity to create a personal environment that takes into account your future accessibility, safety and financial needs.

And, experts say, there is no reason to forget style.

Accessibility concerns - whether because of aging or physical limitations - are part of Valarie Costanzo's practice as a real estate agent for Prudential Fox & Roach in Rittenhouse Square and Haddonfield.

Costanzo, 57, began concentrating on the accessibility niche after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis two years ago. She began helping MS Society clients in search of affordable handicapped-modified housing.

Searching listings for homes with ramps, enlarged doors, and bathrooms with walk-in tubs or roll-in showers, Costanzo realized: "A lot of this stuff also applies to baby boomers with bad knees, bad backs, etc.

"What handicapped people need, baby boomers want," she said.

Costanzo scours South Jersey Cape Cods and bungalows for master bedrooms and laundry facilities on the first floor, driveways with sidewalks, and one-step access to the home. Among Philadelphia high-rises, she seeks buildings with elevators and nearby cultural resources. But her starting question is always financial.

"Housing is a good portion of your monthly income," Costanzo said. "My first questions really revolve around, 'How much monthly income do you want or need to contribute to housing?' And then we go from there."

For some, owning a home is not necessarily the best long-term plan, Costanzo said.

Jackie Anderson, 62, owns a condominium unit in Cherry Hill. But, she said, "with no children, no reason to build liquid assets, what I'm really contemplating is renting."

So, Anderson has put her townhouse up for sale. By moving into a small apartment, she figures she can halve her current housing expenses - a $1,500 mortgage payment plus taxes and utilities - and invest "the big chunk of money from the sale of my townhouse and let it work for me."

And, she said, a single-level apartment would have multiple benefits. She has bad knees and sometimes finds her condo's stairs difficult to climb.

"I love my townhouse," she admitted, "but do I need that space? I have a six-pound Yorkie, and I live alone."

Clients of Paoli architect Rene Hoffman plan to live in their new homes as they age. "Most of the people we design houses for [say] 'we're going out in a box,' " said Hoffman, of R.A. Hoffman Architects Inc.

Many of Hoffman's baby-boomer clients also have parents with immediate physical needs for user-friendly housing. Some opt to build additions or small residences on their properties for one or more parents, he said. "A lot of the townships are pretty forward-thinking," with zoning ordinances that facilitate aging in place, or at least with one's children.

To design a home for older clients' future needs, Hoffman evaluates how occupants will move between floors and between areas – from the garage to the house, for example - with an eye toward eliminating stairs or providing ramps or lifts.

Frequently, Hoffman designs a home where improvements can be phased in as the occupants' abilities change. Some clients want the master-bedroom suite and all key living areas on the first floor from the start. For those who place the master bedroom on a second floor, Hoffman designs an elevator shaft that can be used as a storage area until needed.

Hoffman said a small residential elevator cost about $25,000 to install.

Other provisions for phased-in improvements include blocking behind bathroom walls to support future grab bars, and the installation of wiring for easy control of lighting, entertainment devices, security, heating, cooling, and even window shades.

Such features "seem like truly custom features now, and maybe luxuries, but it's really going to help people as they age in the home," Hoffman said.

Useful automation need not be complex or expensive, according to Andrew Borislow, the founder of Accessall L.L.C., of Gwynedd Valley, whose Web site sells mobility, safety and independence products.

Simple devices - such as motion-sensing lights installed from bed to bathroom, or wireless smoke detectors that set off the alarm in every room - can be effective, he said.

Borislow's emphasis is on preventing falls, cited as the top cause of accidental death among adults age 55 and older. But he appreciates his clients' requirements for style. "People have to understand there are so many aesthetically pleasing solutions now," he said. "The idea of products all being institutional-looking is gone. . . . Grab bars aren't just metal anymore. They come in literally 50 or more colors and shades."

Increasingly, architects, designers and accessibility consultants and their older clients turn to the principles of "universal design," which calls for products and environments that are usable regardless of age or ability. The concept can lead to simple ergonomic improvements: light switches that are low on a wall, lever handles instead of knobs, low kitchen counters for people who work while seated.

Borislow and Carol Reitter Elia, a Newtown Square interior designer who consults for senior communities, said Moen Inc. plumbing fixtures designed for disabled users were becoming popular and were sold through the Home Depot Inc. "It's now very easy for us as designers to use these products," Reitter Elia said.

Easy-access refrigerators and drawer-style dishwashers are being promoted as "hip and cool" to the able-bodied market, Borislow said.

"As technology evolves, convenience is going to evolve for older adults," he said.

A Safer Home In Retirement

Remove things you can trip over.

Secure or remove small throw rugs.

Keep items you use often within easy reach.

Install grab bars near toilet, tub and shower.

Use nonslip mats in bathtub and shower.

Make sure living areas have adequate lighting.

Install automatic light sensors.

Organize storage spaces. Remove clutter.

Wipe up spills when they happen.

Unplug appliances when not in use.

Keep outdoor sidewalks and paths clear.

Purchase wireless or interconnected smoke detectors.

SOURCE: Andrew J. Borislow, Accessall L.L.C.EndText