Great new options for Seniors

elderly woman being helped down stairs

Aging at Home: Where Seniors Really Want to Live

Papa, Inc.

Statistics show that older homeowners want to stay in their houses rather than relocate to senior living communities. “Show them how they can adapt a house to make it comfortable for the long term without a major remodel.”

Despite the allure of senior communities that offer a surfeit of amenities, such as pools, gyms, coffee bars, and cooking classes, most older adults—76 percent of Americans age 50 and older—want to remain in a home throughout their golden years, according to an AARP survey.

Helping clients who want to purchase or update a home where they can age in place is a growing niche in real estate and ancillary industries. Agents and brokers like myself, who are Senior Real Estate Specialists (SRES) or Certified Aging-in-Place Specialists (CAPS) can help this cohort find homes or stay put and modify their homes to address physical or cognitive impairments.

Although most homeowners accept help when a crisis occurs, such as a fall or stroke, most experts say anyone 55 years and older should plan their future living situation long before they have difficulty climbing stairs or stepping into a bathtub. It often doesn’t require an expensive remodel, addition, or redesign that makes a house look institutional. A new category of home auditors can help clients analyze which changes to make. Daniel Edwards, owner of the Handyman Connection in Hanover, Mass., is developing a program to train people to conduct an aging-in-place analysis by providing a checklist of options.

Design Modifications

Better Living Design in Asheville, N.C., and architect Jeffrey DeMure, author of Livable Design, recommend four steps to improve existing homes: putting essential spaces on a main level, including a first-floor bedroom; creating a zero-step entry; ensuring good interior air circulation; and improving kitchens and bathrooms.

When steps lead up to the front door, getting into and around a home can be a logistical nightmare for someone who’s wheelchair bound. Another challenge is interior hallways and doorways that are too narrow for wheelchair users or someone with a walker to pass through. Often these situations occur when an apartment building, condo building, or house was constructed before the Americans with Disabilities Act law was passed in 1990. That legislation dictates measurements for public buildings, such as requiring door openings to be at least 32 inches wide. While private homes don’t have to meet the same criteria, more builders and architects are following the same guidelines so their designs work for everyone. It’s known as universal design.

When it comes to circumventing stairs, a basic aluminum ramp runs $3,000 to $6,000, while a nicer wood design could be double the price, says Edwards. An elevator would be more costly—from $15,000 up—and many homes don’t have the space to accommodate it, says architect Josh Zinder, of Joshua Zinder Architecture + Design in Princeton, N.J.

Zinder transformed his father’s home after he had a stroke and worked on architect Michael Graves’ home after he became paralyzed from a spinal infection. He says rooms can also be switched around to avoid taking down walls or putting on additions. Zinder made a living room into a bedroom because it was more accessible to a bathroom, and then made the original bedroom into a den.

Because falls can be devastating for elderly homeowners, Daejin Kim, an aging-in-place expert and assistant professor of interior design at Iowa State University, suggests horizontal rather than vertical storage so homeowners don’t have to use stepstools. Falls can also be avoided by removing area rugs, clutter, and electrical cords that stretch across a room. Switching out carpeting for hardwood, linoleum, or vinyl flooring is also an option, says Rossetti.

As eyesight worsens, painting rooms lighter colors can help, says Jennifer Naughton, executive vice present and risk consulting officer at Chubb. Even lowering one countertop can improve the daily living of a homeowner who’s in a wheelchair, says Dak Kopec, an associate professor of healthcare interior design at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Kopec teaches students to design spaces that cater to an aging population. He also recommends modifying outdoor space, if possible, since quality time outside can help increase serotonin and lessen anxiety and depression.

Rossetti says good lighting is also important for performing tasks around the house and making nighttime bathroom visits safer. Many lights now come on automatically at dusk, so no programming is required. Because bending and reaching deep into a cabinet can become harder, items like ShelfGenie’s custom pull-out shelves retrofit base cabinets without a major remodel, says ShelfGenie CEO Andy Pittman.

Several insurance companies are taking advantage of Papa Inc., a digital health company based in Miami that provides college-age “grandkids on demand” who have been vetted to assist older adults with transportation, house chores, technology lessons, meal services, and other needs. The program is also designed to counter the problem of loneliness, particularly among aging adults. Aetna Medicare’s partnership with Papa Inc. rolled out Oct. 1. “The goal is to help those who are frail and struggling to make their homes accessible,” says Dr. Robert Mirsky, Aetna’s chief medical officer. Humana Inc. has also partnered with Papa to provide help for qualifying members of its Medicare Advantage plans.