Designed for aging

Want to stay put as you age? Take advantage of these tips for thoughtful planning and strategic remodeling.

Green bathroom with elements of universal design
A shower with no curb and floors cleared of hazardous throw rugs make for a safe aging-in-place space. Photo courtesy of Andrea Rugg/Sylvestre Remodeling & Design

Home is where the heart is — and many Minnesotans are yearning to stay home as they age. 

But what happens when climbing stairs or getting in and out of a traditional tub-shower becomes difficult?

Is it time to move into a senior living community?

Not necessarily.

If you have a strong social community surrounding you — and a desire to age in the home you’ve always known — you have options. 

Staying put or aging in place, as it’s known, may be a less expensive option, especially if your home is paid off.  

In fact, the issue of being able to age in place may be more relevant than ever. Senior citizens are the fastest-growing population, and by 2050, the total number of U.S. residents over 65 is set to double.

And Minnesota is a special case. According to St. Paul’s Wilder Research, Minnesota’s 65-and-older adult population will more than double between 2010 and 2030 as the state’s 1.3 million baby boomers head into retirement. During the present decade alone, Minnesota’s senior population is on track to increase by 41%, more than the national average.

Why? Residents here in the True North tend not to permanently retire to other regions. Hearty and hale, greatly attached to their families and social networks, Minnesotans stay put.

With health and social services for seniors already overwhelmed, committees and departments on aging are popping up nationwide, many with specific mandates to keep seniors safe, healthy and happy in their own homes.

Notable in this effort is the design community, members of which often join forces with policy makers to offer ideas and services that improve and extend the lives of seniors who choose to live out their years in their own homes.

Certified experts

When considering upgrades to an existing home — or building a new one — envisioning a future with full mobility in mind is wise. Although it’s difficult to imagine while enjoying robust health, almost 50% of Americans over 65 will have major joint replacement. And that’s only one of a multitude of misfortunes that can quash mobility.

Fortunately, architects, designers, remodelers, custom homebuilders and even occupational therapists have teamed up with other experts to design solutions and products that can help overcome obstacles incurred once mobility is impaired. Their goal is to facilitate lifelong residency.

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) — in collaboration with AARP and other experts — has developed the Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist (CAPS) designation, which is earned through training and testing during a multicourse educational program. 

CAPS professionals focus on the unique needs of older adults, examining common barriers and the appropriate aging-in-place home modifications to solve them.

According to NAHB, a CAPS professional can:

  • Recommend updates that will help a person live independently in his or her own home.
  • Work with an occupational therapist to develop a home modification (or new-build plan) based on the safety and functional needs of an individual or household.
  • Collaborate with a licensed contractor or interior designer about building and design strategies for creating attractive, barrier-free living spaces.
  • Provide information about building codes and standards, useful products and resources and the costs and time required for common remodeling projects.

CAPS remodelers and design-build professionals are not medical or health-care professionals, and generally consult by charging an hourly or flat fee. To find a CAPS professional, visit the NAHB directory page.

Elevator with open door in lower level of home
Elevator with open door in lower level of home

Design savvy

Sylvestre Remodeling & Design’s owner and chief architect, John Sylvestre, has a lifetime of experience in making home modifications that allow people to stay in the homes they love — with an eye toward style as well as safely. 

A self-confessed baby boomer, Sylvestre takes seriously individuals’ desires to remain in their own homes for as long as possible.

His Richfield-based firm is CAPS-certified and his portfolio abounds with examples of work with typical Minneapolis housing stock. For example, his firm installed an elevator in a 1920s home for one client, matching its door to the existing hallway doors to seamlessly integrate the design into the character of the home.

Following well-established aging-in-place guidelines, Sylvestre emphasizes basic categories for consideration: One-level living is a primary factor once mobility is impacted. 

“We have done a number of projects that make sure there is a full bathroom on the first floor, a possible sleeping room and a laundry,” Sylvestre said.

Of course, the bathroom is another critical area. It must be able to accommodate mobility aids, such as canes, walkers and wheelchairs. Options include widening doors, replacing tubs with showers, investing in wall-hung toilets with adjustable heights, positioning shower controls in a practical location, or removing curbs or step-ups into showers, which also creates a more modern look.

Kitchens are another essential mobility-friendly frontier. Sylvestre suggests taking a look at cabinets, doorways and islands, ensuring adequate room for tasks. 

Fully mobile individuals take for granted clearance space needed to open doors and drawers that would be greatly impacted when using a mobility aid like a walker or wheelchair. 

What to ask

There are many resources for folks contemplating an aging-in-place adaptable remodel. 

One of the most popular is AARP’s HomeFit Guide (tinyurl.com/aarp-homefit-guide), which begins with a checklist of questions designed to help seniors to think wisely about how to live independently longer. Here are a few: 

  • Is there a step-free entrance into your home?
  • Is there a bedroom, a full bath or a kitchen on the main level?
  • Are interior doorways at least 36 inches wide?
  • Does the kitchen have a work surface you can use while seated?
  • Are the kitchen cabinets and shelves easy for you to reach?
  • Are your exterior walkways and entrances well lit?
  • Are stairway light fixtures located at both the top and bottom of the stairs?
  • Do you have a shower with a step-free entry?
  • Are the bathroom cabinets and shelves easy for you to reach?
  • Does your bathroom have a lever-, touch- or sensor-style faucet?
  • Are there non-slip strips or non-slip mats in the bathtub and/or shower?

According to the NIH’s National Institute on Aging, older adults thinking about aging in place should also consider their ability to continue getting out for social activities, making their own meals, doing personal care tasks, completing household chores, taking care of money management and staying on top of medications and health care, including emergencies. 

Learn more at tinyurl.com/aging-in-place-ideas. 

Interior of large walk-in and roll-in shower that is handicapped accessible
Shower stall entries without steps can accommodate walkers, wheelchairs and other mobility aids.

Inside-outside

A cold-weather city like Minneapolis must mind its walkways, skyways and highways to ensure the safety of Minnesotans who are staying put. So, along with the inside of homes, urban cityscapes and resources are important to the aging-in-place debate.

A few years back, Jessica Finlay conducted extensive studies at the University of Minnesota in her field of environmental gerontology. She reported that older residents need small amenities like benches, shady spots, nearby shopping and longer-timed traffic lights to help them cross the street.

In Minneapolis, agencies like the city’s Advisory Committee on Aging are working with researchers like Finlay and with nonprofits like the Wilder Foundation to ensure that mobility considerations are factored into the city’s urban plan.

Minneapolis, it seems, might be an especially good spot to age in place, inside and out!


Leveling Up

How much does an elevator cost?

Adding an elevator to an existing home costs, on average, between about $35,000–$45,000 in the U.S., according to fixr.com. 

Read about the different types and brands of elevators, including hydraulic and pneumatic.

What about stair lifts?

A professionally installed stairlift costs about $3,000–$5,000 in the U.S., according to fixr.com, about the average cost of one month of assisted living in Minnesota ($3,468). Custom curve rail configurations can cost more than $10,000. Read about the different types and brands of stair lifts.

Susan Schaefer is a Minneapolis-based freelance communications consultant, writer and photographer. Reach her at insights@lifeintrans.com. Read about her recent double hip replacement.