Rachael Wonderlin, 28, is a gerontologist and dementia care consultant who has been a staff member specializing in care of those with
Home renovations often center on upgrading the kitchen cabinets or selecting a new paint color for the bedroom, but as long as you are at it, a well-thought-out redesign might also include modifications to help you stay in your home as you grow older.
These alterations can start with simple things, like installing a grab bar in the bathroom or replacing doorknobs with lever handles. But if your budget allows for an entire kitchen or bathroom overhaul, it’s best to think about how you physically may change in the years to come and plan accordingly, said Heather Brin, the principal architect of Aging in Place Architecture in Port Jefferson, N.Y.
“These renovations are all about maintaining independence,” Ms. Brin said. “So if you have back pain now, then it’s smart to think about getting pullout shelves to minimize bending.”
Take Chandrakant Sheth of Woodside, Queens, a retired engineer and television repairman. At age 81, he has kept healthy with daily walks and is proud that he moves along at a faster clip than his 50-year-old son. He suddenly found himself less mobile, however, after he fell and fractured his right arm in September when a hurried passenger knocked into him as he stepped off a subway escalator.
Buttoning a shirt or taking a shower is now difficult and time consuming, he said. But he is able to navigate the bathroom well enough since a grab bar was installed in the bathroom several years ago for his wife, who has since died.
“I never had to use the bar until now, but I’m grateful it was already there,” he said.
More than one out of four Americans age 65 and older fall each year and one in five falls cause serious injury, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The city Department for the Aging said there were nearly one million adults age 65 and older living in the five boroughs of New York in 2010, but that number is expected to rise to about 1.35 million in 2030. As the city’s population ages, officials are urging homeowners and landlords to make age-in-place fixes.
“Something as simple and cost-effective as installing a grab bar can prevent debilitating falls and literally save lives,” said Donna M. Corrado, the commissioner of the Department for the Aging.
More than 85 percent of older Americans want to stay in their current home rather than move elsewhere, a 2010 survey by AARP found.
Iraida Gonzalez, 68, is one of them. She wants to live for as long as she can in Northern Manhattan in a building that is part of the Fort George Vistas NORC, an acronym for Naturally Occurring Retirement Community.
Ms. Gonzalez and her husband, Serafin Baldera, 73, have had numerous health problems, including temporary sight loss, diabetes, arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome. She used to grab the towel rack in the bathroom to help her get around. “It was scary because I knew it wasn’t the best thing to use,” she said.
Ms. Gonzalez recently received three free grab bars, a sturdy bathmat with suction cups to prevent it from moving and some night lights, thanks to a grant secured by Isabella Geriatric Center, the nonprofit group that operates the NORC program in her building.
The organization worked with students from the Columbia University School of Nursing to conduct home assessments to identify residents at risk for falls based on their medications, medical history, level of activity and fall history. Then Charles Morano, a physical therapist and the owner of Morano Rehabilitation Home Services in Manhattan, conducted home safety assessments for the individuals found to be in danger.
Workers installed grab bars for Iris Boteler, 99, who said she had difficulty walking because of arthritis and other ailments. “You need things to support you,” said Ms. Boteler, who has lived about 45 years in her building, also a part of the Fort George Vistas NORC.
Depending on the items used, minor modifications can cost from several hundred dollars to about $2,000. But if you have more money to spend, customization is key, said Barbara S. Roth, an interior designer and a founder of Camille Rossy, a design firm in Manhattan.
Ms. Roth described a client — a woman in her early 50s with multiple sclerosis — who wanted more cabinet space for her small, dated Murray Hill kitchen. But a place for a stool near the stove and counter was deemed as important as storage because it was getting harder for the woman to stand for long periods.
Although no one likes to talk about age, health and physical disabilities, Ms. Roth said it is important to discuss these issues so an expensive renovation doesn’t become obsolete in a few years.
Because the client’s illness can lead to blurred or double vision, Ms. Roth also talked about installing extra lights and of the importance of color contrast in the kitchen, so the client could easily determine where the stove top ended and the counter began. Her client chose ivory and white for the kitchen cabinets and back splash, and black for the stove top.
“The goal was to not make the new kitchen look institutional,” she said.
For large or open kitchens, installing a movable island, either on wheels or with legs that have felt on the bottom, can be an easy addition, said Victor A. Mirontschuk, an architect and chairman of EDI International, an architectural firm with an office in Manhattan.
“Movable islands give people flexibility because you can push it out of the way,” to provide space when needed, he said, if a walker or wheelchair becomes necessary.
Mr. Mirontschuk has designed movable islands for several multifamily developments. Although standard kitchen counters are about 36 inches in height, building an island at 34 inches or lower would also comply with regulations from the Americans With Disabilities Act, because a lower counter works better for someone in a wheelchair.
Some people decide to make home modifications before the need arises.
Amy Lynn, 59, a benefits administrator for the town of New Canaan, Conn., said she had been waiting for years to redo two dated bathrooms in her raised ranch in Monroe, Conn. So when Ms. Roth advised her to shop for grab bars and a comfort-height toilet — about two inches higher than a regular toilet to make the sitting-to-standing motion easier — as well as for new tiles and a sink, she was surprised.
“I just wanted new bathrooms, so I wasn’t thinking about what happens when we get older,” Ms. Lynn said. But with her knees already bothering her, the additions now make “complete sense” and cost her only a few hundred additional dollars.
Ms. Lynn said she spent about $12,000 to renovate two bathrooms. Her master bathroom has a new shower stall with a built-in corner seat, a removable shower head and niches so shampoo bottles are kept off the floor. The other bathroom still has a tub, but the old glass door was removed and replaced with a shower curtain.
A walk-in shower is ideal for people with leg and vision problems, since it gets harder to step in and out of a tub as you age, said Chrysanne Eichner, a senior occupational therapist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan.
Building industry professionals are taking note. Since the National Association of Home Builders started to offer a Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist program in 2002, nearly 7,000 contractors, architects, interior designers and occupational therapists have become credentialed by attending a one-day class, said Elizabeth Thompson, a spokeswoman for the association.
Erik Listou, a founder of the Living in Place Institute, a professional training firm, said about 200 people have taken its Certified Living in Place Professional class, which started about a year ago. The firm offers the two-day program nationwide.
Without divulging any specific data, Moen, a manufacturer of bathroom and kitchen products, said the market for its bath safety line has expanded over the past three years, after it started offering more stylish grab bars that match other bath products.
“When you remove the stigma that bath safety isn’t attractive, it invites consumers to purchase,” said Chris Nealon, a Moen product manager.
Joyce Jed and her husband, Arnold Wendroff, both 74, are ahead of the game at their home on the parlor and second floors of their three-story rowhouse in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Ms. Jed, a horticultural therapist, said she started to weary of the many steep steps she had to climb inside her home every day. If she is bothered now, she wondered, how would it be in a few more years?
Since the couple knew they wanted to stay in their home, they decided to spend about $150,000 to fix up their ground-floor space, which over the years had primarily been used to house visiting family and friends. They chose to widen a hallway and two doors, open the back room to install an open kitchen and living area, and add windows for more light, among other things. Ms. Jed said much of her focus was on the design of a new bathroom with a walk-in shower and a wide ledge on the side of the bathtub so she could sit and “swing my legs over” to get in.
Soon after the construction wrapped up in April, the couple’s granddaughter was accepted by the Fashion Institute of Technology as a freshman and needed a place in the city. So for now, she is enjoying living on the renovated ground floor. But her grandmother said she feels good knowing that the ground-floor apartment is in move-in condition for the day that she feels even less inclined to climb the stairs.
“It was a big undertaking, but I’m glad we did all of this while we’re spry and alert,” Ms. Jed said.
Renovations that help people’s mobility will reduce social isolation as they age, said Kimberly S. George, the executive director of Rebuilding Together NYC, a nonprofit that helps seniors and disabled low-income residents improve the accessibility of their homes.
“Ideally, you shouldn’t rely on family members or friends to help you get around the house,” she said. “You don’t want your own home to be a hazard.”