More Americans opting to age in place

Growing older and possibly retiring conjures images of our parents flocking south and taking up residence in a sunny retirement community with neatly manicured grass, palm trees, and shuffle board. But a recent study by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) reveals that the geographic distribution of households headed by someone age 55 or older is fairly even across most of the country, with more than 30 percent of all households in every state meeting this description. NAHB’s long-term forecast indicates that the share of 55+ households will grow every year through 2019, when the 55+ category will account for nearly 45 percent of all U.S. households.

“As more baby boomers approach retirement and the average age of the U.S. population increases, many businesses—including home builders—are showing increased interest in designing products that appeal to customers 55 and older,” said Paul Emrath, NAHB’s vice president of survey and housing policy research. A typical response; even as NAHB continues to urge Congress to ease the restrictive pressure on construction lending, the housing industry’s first reaction is to construct the maximum amount of 55+ developments possible “in every state where population density is sufficient to support new communities of a size that can provide a variety of attractive amenities.”

I think active adult communities can be an excellent addition to any locale and can even be incorporated within traditional housing communities where a blend of residential, commercial, religious, cultural, and care facilities are all within easy reach. I think it is safe to say that “active adults” make for very good neighbors and I am glad that NAHB and the business community as a whole wish to market to this growing demographic with products and services that will benefit the entire community.

Staying put

However, there is one piece of the puzzle that was not gleaned from this most recent round of data analysis. In a MetLife report in conjunction with Louis Tenenbaum, a valued colleague and area advocate and consultant focused on Universal Design and Aging in Place, we learn of a study which shows over 80 percent of those over age 45 say they want to remain in their own homes even when they need assistance. This moves the topic of discussion in a slightly different direction even as the vocabulary changes from “active adult” to “aging”, but marketing buzzwords aside there are very real issues to face in terms of where and how we live.

Tenanbaum, designated by NAHB as a Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) and also a Certified Active Adult Specialist in Housing (US), has devoted much of the past two decades to the study of housing and care systems for older Americans. During a recent meeting of the minds Tenenbaum reminded me that whether we are designing 55+ developments or building or remodeling a single home at a time, the focus should not remain solely on amenities, but a complete system of care that he calls Aging in Place 2.0 (AiP2.0).

According to the MetLife report there are five steps to developing AiP2.0:

1. Homes are prepared for aging in place through individual investment, subsidies, and incentives.

2. Business investment opportunities are recognized and encouraged as providers prepare to work in coordination, seeing opportunities as relationships with intersecting market sectors rather than narrow niches.

3. Connections for care management, social interactions, wellness, and transportation systems are developed.

4. Care management is designed to dispatch services when needed.

Care delivery models are developed to utilize available paid caregiver resources effectively to meet the needs of individuals in the community.

As Medicare and Social Security quickly run out of money and as the nation sinks further into debt, Tenenbaum and I vastly disagree on any emphasis placed on subsidies and incentives, but we both agree that preparing your home is only a small part of the equation, but the first step. Studies from Clarity and the EAR Foundation show that older people fear losing independence (26 percent) and moving to a nursing home (13 percent) much more than they fear death (3 percent). The tricky part is that every home is different so there is not a one-size-fits-all solution to Aging in Place. The costs can be as much as $100k or more or as little as $300, but any real improvement costs need to be weighed against the costs associated with out of home care facilities or the cost of hospitalization due to unsafe living conditions.

Prepare and plan to stay put

The home’s entries and exits are typically the place to start when preparing your home; with additional railing, an inclined walk instead of steps, a lift possibly, or additional lighting simply. Tenenbaum refers to the entry as “the symbolic and real connection from the home to the world outside.” The next logical area to focus on is the ability to get around the house safely by addressing hallway and door widths, adequate lighting and switch locations, perhaps being able to repurpose a main level room to a bedroom if the need arises, or outfitting the home with a lift or an elevator.

Access to and the use of bedrooms and baths are obviously and critically important. These areas of the home can impact our feelings of safety, security, and independence perhaps more so than any other room in the house. Features such as lighting, grab bars, curbless showers, roll-under sinks and properly designed spaces for individual tasks or tasks requiring assistance can go a long way to reaming as independent as possible.

Tenenbaum in his report on AiP2.0 also points to the importance of eating and meal preparation. Kitchen surface heights, accessible appliances and fixtures, and proper lighting again play a big part in our daily lives. Other areas to address are the entertaining areas, household chores and maintenance, and the ability to enjoy the outdoors. Many of these can be dealt with very easily by simply rearranging furniture but some require more complex solutions; perhaps even through the use of technology and home automation.

But planning is key. There are so many solutions that center on shape and size, and what and where, but aging is not an event that we go to or a product that we purchase, but a realization that we come to – preferably while we are still “young”. This paradigm shift called “aging” requires a network of planning, preparedness and action and it takes more than know how, it takes starting now – just “Ask a Builder.”

As always e-mail your questions or comments to or write to “Ask a Builder” at P.O. box 294, Catlett, VA 20119.

Barkman is celebrating his 25th year as a custom home builder and remodeler in Fauquier County and is past president of the Fauquier Chapter of the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association.