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Remodeling helps seniors age in place

When stairs made doing laundry more difficult for Jean Leonhardt, she updated her home so she could live there comfortably as she grew older. What she didn't predict was that a fall would telescope her view on the benefits of remodeling to age in place. "I've never had any disability in my life," says Leonhardt, a 73-year-old gardening enthusiast in Ballwin, Mo. "Now I'm the proud owner of a broken leg."

She was pleased to discover she could easily navigate her home with a wheelchair or walker. "Everything was in place that I didn't know I'd need before the accident," she says.

Leonhardt is among the nearly 90 percent of Americans over 50 who say they want to stay in their homes indefinitely. An Angie's List online poll recently found 18 percent of respondents had remodeled with aging in place in mind, and 37 percent planned to do so.

In 2007, Leonhardt sought the expertise of Scott Mosby of the highly rated Mosby Building Arts in Kirkwood, Mo., to build a first-floor utility room, create a handicap-accessible bathroom and install a patio with a ramp and a barrier-free sunroom. Mosby is a Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist through the National Association of Home Builders. There are more than 3,700 CAPS contractors across the country. Many are remodelers or builders, but CAPS professionals are found in a range of industries.

Leonhardt's remodel included installing a low sink, wider doorways and lever-style handles. "Without all these things in place, I couldn't have managed," she says. "I probably would have had to go to a nursing home."

Mosby says before the need arises is the best time to consider aging-in-place design, which involves reducing barriers in the home and using services that allow one to live independently for as long as possible. "When I get folks who need to start thinking about it, they're generally in the denial phase," he says.

Carolyn Sithong, an occupational therapist and aging-in-place consultant in Orlando, Fla., says people often don't consider it until something precipitates an urgent need to remodel. "Unfortunately, it's still more of a reactive issue than a proactive issue," says Sithong, who fosters collaboration between builders and medical professionals though her firm, Home for Life.

Member Cathy Boys says her parents were set on staying in the two-story farmhouse they'd lived in for more than half a century, even after her 89-year-old father developed congestive heart failure and couldn't manage stairs. "My mother-in-law had to move after my father-in-law died, and I saw how that precipitated her decline," Boys says. "If their hearts aren't into moving, it's beneficial to help them live their senior years at home."

Boys assisted in the remodel of her parents' nearby Monroeville, Ind., home. They made one-story living possible by creating a first-floor bathroom with a stand-up shower and grab bars, an ADA toilet and a stacking washer and dryer.

Aging-in-place remodeling often involves eliminating steps or curbs from entryways, replacing slippery floor materials or installing a dishwasher that doesn't require bending.

"There are simple things that can make a difference between whether people can stay in their home or can't," says Chuck Tanner, owner of Aspen Design Renovations in Littleton, Colo. Tanner, who is CAPS certified, says removing clutter, painting to make floor or wall gradations easier to see, and adding lighting¬ underneath cabinets or in dark hallways are inexpensive upgrades that can help accommodate vision loss.

Although member Carol Chambers and her husband are only in their 50s, they've already begun remodeling their Lewisville, Texas, home for aging in place using the highly rated Village Designs and Remodeling. They installed a walk-in shower, among other updates that make the bathroom more accessible. Chambers says she plans to stay in her home forever.

"We're not getting younger," Chambers says. "How silly would it be if I had a surgery and found myself a prisoner, not being able to use my own bathroom?"

A home with barriers can diminish one's desire to be active, Sithong says. "If you're in an environment that supports what you need and want to do," she says. "It makes you happy and healthy."

Member Barbara Otte helped her 86-year-old mother-in-law in Virginia downsize to a more manageable home in 2009. She used the Angie's List add-a-city option to book highly rated companies for storage, moving, cleaning and landscaping from her home in Arlington Heights, Ill. "They made a tough situation easy," Otte says.

— additional reporting by Staci Giordullo and Meranda Watling


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