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'We don't have enough homes to meet our aging needs': The ideal home for aging in place might not even exist

By Jessica Hall

Hurdles to making homes accessible mean older people must keep compromising

Most people would like to grow old in the home they currently live in. They'd rather not downsize or move to a 55-and-over community or into assisted living.

Here's the problem: Whether they stay or go, the ideal home for aging in place might not even exist.

Aging in place is a goal for a vast majority of older adults, but doing so successfully can be costly and complicated.

As many as 77% of people age 50 and older want to stay in their own home as they age, but only 49% think that they will be able to do so, according to AARP. The homes people raise their families in may be too large and expensive for their needs in retirement and may also lack the modifications people might need as they get older. Renovations to make a home age-friendly can help, but there's a limit to what can be done.

"We don't have enough homes that meet our aging needs," said Rodney Harrell, vice president for family, home and community at AARP. "There are changes the housing industry can make. There are changes policy people can make so that people aren't compromising. But we're not there yet."

Less than 4% of all U.S. homes offer single-floor living, no-step entries, and wide hallways and doorways - the key features of accessible housing - according to Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies' analysis of 2011 survey data.

"I think the number is even less. I've never seen one of those homes," said Vince Butler, president of Butler Brothers Corp., a general contractor and home remodeler in Virginia.

"There's 140 million homes that don't have the features they need," said Butler, who is also a certified aging-in-place specialist with the National Association of Home Builders.

Read: Most people want to age in place - but that goal is out of reach for almost everyone

Look to the future when buying

When people buy a home, their priority may be a growing family, a commute to work or a specific neighborhood. They're not necessarily thinking about how to manage stairs or whether they'll have to haul laundry to another floor when they get older.

"The toughest thing when buying homes [is that] we don't think decades ahead to aging. There are very few of us who are great planners," Harrell said. "We need to be informed as home buyers about our needs today and for our future selves. But many of us are in denial about aging."

We shouldn't be.

"Far too many of us are in ill-suited homes," Harrell said. "People will compromise as necessary, but compromising can become a health hazard."

The housing unicorn: Zero-step entryways

One of the most important features of a suitable home for older people or those with a disability is a zero-step entryway. Homes with no steps at all, however, are hard to find.

"Getting someone in and out of the home is often the hardest part, and it's the most crucial point. Bathrooms are easy to fix, doors are easy to widen. The biggest problem is just getting into the house," Butler said.

"Having a one-level house still doesn't make it accessible if there are two steps up to get into the house," he added. "No one thinks about it until they need it."

For generations, many homes have been built on elevated foundations to help prevent pests and rot, Butler said. Meanwhile, a scarcity of space has pushed many people to expand upward into attics or down into basements, thereby incorporating stairways into their homes.

In addition to no stairs, other features that are important for older or disabled individuals include wider hallways with handrails on both sides, lever-style door handles that are easier to turn than doorknobs, and light switches and power controls that are easy to reach and operate, Butler said.

Curbless showers that accommodate wheelchairs are also crucial, as are grab bars in the shower and tub area, he said.

"Grab bars are the seatbelts of the shower and tub: They should be there not because you have a need already, but because you might slip. They're there to prevent the fall in the first place," Butler said.

"Lighting can be improved in every home," he added. "As people age, color distinction can fade, and it's hard to see differences in flooring or spaces."

Many homeowners worry that making countertops and sinks wheelchair accessible or adding features such as grab bars will hurt their home's resale value, Butler said.

"The fear is that it will stigmatize the home and reduce its value. That's not true. You can incorporate design features to accommodate people's needs and still get beautiful design," he said.

Grab bars and safety devices now come in a variety of colors and finishes, allowing them blend in with home decor and to look less industrial than standard options, he said.

Read: Dream of aging in place? This government program could be a game-changer for seniors.

To stay or to go?

Everyone has to make their own decision about whether it's wise to stay in their home and remodel it to fit their changing needs, or simply to move.

"If you have enough money, you can make any house accessible. But we have said to clients that it's probably not the right decision to stay in this house," Butler said. "If you have a 50- to 60-year-old home, it will have small hallways and doorways. Additions cost a lot of money. Putting elevators in can be done, but that's a lot."

Harrell noted that removing clutter and throw rugs is a cost-free yet effective way to improve mobility and access throughout a home.

"Some changes can cost zero dollars and others can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars," he said. "There's no perfect housing choice. There are always trade-offs and decisions to make."

But if someone decides to move, there's still the question of where to go. Even in communities that cater to older adults, homes often lack accessible features.

Even an apartment or condominium can prove challenging: The requirements to comply the Americans with Disability Act only apply to the common areas of a community, not to the individual units.

"Even 55-plus communities are not being built as accessible. It astounds me. There are still steps at the entryways and curbed showers and decked tubs or soaking tubs that aren't accessible," Butler said. "There are very few designers and builders who are building with the aging population in mind."

This story was produced with support from Columbia University's Age Boom Academy.

-Jessica Hall

This content was created by MarketWatch, which is operated by Dow Jones & Co. MarketWatch is published independently from Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal.


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01-17-24 1133ET

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