Aging in Place
When Don Bowers’ 82-year-old mother fell and broke her leg for the second time in two years, Bowers realized that it was time to retrofit her Buxton house so she could stay at her home and still be safe.
The first thing he did was modify the four steps to the door of her one-story house making them eight steps that were closer together and easier to climb. He also installed railings and widened each stair tread five inches to lessen the risk of tripping.
Knowing his mom’s spunky and independent nature, he took down any storage shelf that would tempt her to sneak up on a stool to get something. Next, he took away her stepladder and completely removed her back steps until he has the time to modify them like the front ones.
She said of the back steps, “Well, I’m not going to use them,” Bowers recounted, “I said, ‘I know you’re not, because there are not any steps there right now.’”
He also put a security bar in the bathroom and removed any furniture in the living spaces that would obstruct his mother’s movement or cause her to trip. “I did the things that will make me sleep better at night,” he said. Most everyone would like to stay in their home as long as possible as they age, but not everyone has a son like Bowers who has the foresight and skill to make the safety improvements. Sometimes it’s not even obvious what needs to be done until an accident happens. Oftentimes, the necessary modifications are too expensive or nearly impossible to do in an existing house.
“Our biggest challenge here on the Outer Banks is that very few houses are on ground level because of the building code,” said Kenny Pekrun, a Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) and the owner of Atlantic Elevators in Kill Devil Hills. “By and large, we’re starting eight or nine feet off the ground.”
Pekrun said that the CAPS program, offered by the National Association of Home Builders, focuses on accessibility with guidance from physical and occupational therapists. Ideally, he said, retirees should think ahead when building their house, or before renovating and adding onto their existing house.
As an Aging in Place consultant, Pekrun can identify the needs of the client and make recommendations on design solutions and estimate the cost and schedule of each project. “You can have that sunset view,” he said, “and you get to keep it all your life.”
A zero-threshold shower that allows a wheelchair to be rolled into the shower could be located off the master bedroom. Hallways and doorways could easily be wider, and bathrooms can be made bigger. The question to ask is, “Hey, do you want to live in this house forever?” If so, then looking at a few initial changes during the blueprint stage will prevent major modifications down the road.
Modifications of already-built homes are a lot more expensive than building it into the original plan Pekrun advises. Elevator shafts, for instance, can be storage closets on each level until they need to be elevators later.
“If you do it later, it’ll cost you $25,000 just to build one shaft,” he said. “And in very few houses do we find a place to put a shaft because unless it’s a new remodel, it wasn’t planned for.” And if you do have to sell, the house is more marketable with either extra closets or a potential elevator.
Sometimes, retrofitting as needed makes sense. It might be preferable, for example, to live in a home with traditional height counters but then install lower kitchen cabinets and sinks when they are needed. Wheelchair ramps must be built to certain specifications and usually require a lot of space. In that case, a stairway lift, which can be exterior or interior, may be a better fit. Pekrun said that the best outdoor lifts for the Outer Banks are ones that are made out of aluminum because they can withstand the salt air without corroding.
Judy Lazenby said she is very happy with an exterior lift used to get her 13-year-old dog in and out of the 3-story home that she and her husband own in Frisco. “She can’t go up and down the stairs,” Lazenby said. “It’s been really nice. It’s a lifesaver on your back.”
Dawn Butcher, president of Carolina Custom Homes & Remodeling, said that she is definitely seeing increased demand for homes with wider hallways and doors, and pre-installed elevator shafts. “People are retiring here,” she said. “They’re looking at features that will ensure they won’t have to do as much remodeling.”
Catherine Kozak has worked as a writer and reporter on the Outer Banks since 1995. She lives in Nags Head and enjoys running in the woods with her dog, Rosie.