The Helmses have no intention of moving out of their two-story Colonial home in Lafayette Hill.
The couple, Bobbi, 66, and Mark, 68, have lived there for 40 years and are too well-situated between kids, grandkids, and Bobbi's nonagenarian parents to be swayed elsewhere.
But Mark had a scare in August 2017 that made them rethink how and where they live within their house.
Just before an annual family vacation to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Mark fell down the stairs. After a hospital visit and doctor's OK, they went ahead with their trip. But when they arrived, their daughters wanted to have a serious discussion.
"My two daughters pulled us aside and said, 'You should think about moving,'" Bobbi recalled. "I said, 'We're not moving.' They said, 'Then you need to put on an addition.' It was the first time it was raised, and I thought, 'Oh, I didn't think about that.'"
Bobbi began looking into options for aging in place. Now, after a five-month construction project completed in May, the couple have a new master bedroom, sunroom, crafts room, and bathroom. The project, all told, cost roughly $180,000.
"My home is going to be here for 20 years, at least," Bobbi said. "After that, we'll see what we need."
According to a 2017 HomeAdvisor report, 37 percent of homeowners reported having difficulties walking up stairs or reaching for cabinets as they age, and 41 percent said they've experienced a trip or a fall. Thirty-six percent said they count on help to do everyday tasks at home. Nearly half of owners 75 and older responded that they had prepared for aging with home renovations, but 15 percent did so only after their physical needs made their dwellings unlivable.
Pennsylvania's senior citizen contingent is growing — fast. As the Inquirer and Daily News reported earlier this year, "the state's senior population is growing at a rate 20 times faster than Pennsylvania's overall population." In Montgomery County, where the Helmses live, nearly one-quarter of residents will be older than 65 in a little more than two decades, according to the Pennsylvania State Data Center.
As explored in an Inquirer and Daily series, many older adults hope to continue living where they are, but the health benefits of "aging in place" are hard to measure. Karen Bergey, a gerontologist based in Fairmount, said the pluses to staying in one's home, if it's done safely, are "psychosocial."
"The comfort of home is what that's about," Bergey said, adding: "If you know your community, if you're involved in your community, you'll want to stay in your community."
While aging-in-place modifications can be expensive, Bergey said there are many ways homeowners can get started affordably. Installing handrails, for example, is an inexpensive safety upgrade. Or residents can remove slippery throw rugs or reorganize the kitchen for better reachability without diving into their pockets at all.
Some homeowners, such as the Helmses, need to relocate their lives to the ground floor.
Mark has Parkinson's disease, which affects his balance, and he uses a rolling walker. The goal in remodeling was not only to eliminate the need to climb stairs but also to make room for wheelchair accessibility, should it be needed in the future. Their ground level had an open plan from the kitchen to the living room, but now the living room flows to wide-set entrances to new rooms added to the house.
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The HomeAdvisor report noted a stigma around growing older that can influence the conversation — or lack thereof — around housing. It's a topic many people don't want to broach, perhaps due to lack of awareness, said Ellen Farber, a Rittenhouse-based interior designer who specializes in senior living. Residents may not sense that lower appliances, fewer steps, and even adjusted lighting all may be needed in the decades to come.
Doreen Hespell, an administrator for the Montgomery County Office of Aging and Adult Services, said considerations shouldn't stop at retrofits. Families also should ensure medication management, exercise, and a healthy lifestyle, which includes connecting with others to avoid isolation.
Farber estimates that due to a lack of education, homeowners lack aesthetic points of reference for aging-ready dwellings beyond "dingy, unappealing" institutions. Better design raises questions of taste. "What's innovative? What's sexy?" Farber said. "Sexy is making the home safe, first of all."
Bobbi embraced the project by gathering decor inspiration on Pinterest, where she also plotted the blue-and-gray tones for the new bedroom. She also insisted on black-and-white tiling in the bathroom.
The Helmses had a pre-existing addition that was more fit for storage than suburban leisure. Contractor Jon Domers, based in Plymouth Meeting, recommended that they convert that space into the sunroom and crafts room, where Bobbi makes jewelry.
He also advised removing a patio and downsizing the two-car garage to make room for a new addition for the master bedroom and bath.
The height of bathtubs, toilets, and even shower thresholds can challenge seniors with impaired mobility. For that reason, the bathroom is a key element of an aging-in-place project. For the Helmses, Domers installed a wide, zero-step opening in the shower, which both offers easy access and prevents tripping.
Domers built a ramp for the kitchen door and a new patio outside of the sunroom, facing the athletic fields behind the house. The sunroom and patio now offer views of cyclists riding through the bike path and deer passing by.
Now that the couple have moved to the first floor, the second floor is mostly the domain of visiting grandchildren. (But the two basset hounds and one cocker spaniel stay primarily on the first floor with Mom-Mom and Pop-Pop.)
"Everything is just enough room," Mark said of the new first floor. "I can get into, get out without any problems."
He broke his ankle due to a fall during construction, stayed in rehab for two months, and came home to nearly completed work. The house feels somewhat like a new place to him. “I’m a happy camper.”