Aging Gracefully: Smart Design Sets Stage for Guests and Retirement

Flipping through headlines about Austin’s rapid growth, intrepid entrepreneurs and celebrated music scene it would be easy to forget about the millions of Americans now entering retirement.

Austin wins accolades for being one of the best place for Millennials (25 to 34 year olds) to move. But, like most of the nation, is home to a huge number of Baby Boomers (51 to 69 year olds) who are beginning to retire (or semi-retire) in droves.

About 8 percent of Travis County’s population is over 65. And, though Travis County has a relatively young population, its average age is on the rise. Age groups older than 45 have grown while younger groups have decreased slightly from 75 percent of the population to 72 percent between 2000 and 2009, county statistics show.

So, stats aside, what does that mean?

For one, it means that assisted living centers and senior service businesses are expanding in key areas, such as Lake Travis and Westlake. (Learn more about that from Community Impact News.) And there may be opportunities for homeowners to position themselves well for the future by buying a home that could suit them through retirement years or by adding subtle, but important senior living features to their homes — like wider doors and first-level living areas.

Universal Design for Your Future

Today’s accessible home is nothing like those of the past. So leave behind images you may have of industrial grab bars, clunky ramps and ugly rubber guards.

Homeowners can make changes big and small that prepare their house for their senior years, make the home more friendly to guests with disabilities and increase the value of their property.

Homeowners benefit if their renovations allow them to keep their independence and quality of life while avoiding — or at least reducing — time spent in costly assisted-living centers. And, by making the home livable for someone with limited mobility, homeowners can make their properties more attractive to the boomer generation, which has generally strong finances.

Those changes can be achieved by implementing a few universal design standards. First, let’s dig into what that means.

Universal design has grown to include an almost never-ending list of ways to open a home up to more people, especially those with mobility issues. It includes properly sized doors and hallways for wheelchair access, but it extends well beyond that.

Many elements, such as grab bars, don’t need attention until someone with mobility issues is living the home. Others, however, are relatively subtle changes that can benefit the overall flow of a house.

Many homeowners eventually opt to remodel their kitchen. Universal design features in such a project could include lower counter areas and recessed cabinets under the sink, stovetop and food preparation areas that make it easy for someone in a wheelchair prepare a meal. Here’s an example that shows a woman in a wheelchair cooking. And here is a more modern design that features accessible sinks and counterspace.

Bathrooms are another key area in an accessible home. But many of the design elements, such as low-entry showers, could easily go unnoticed in a modern bathroom. Other options can be incorporated during a remodeling.

For example, providing space under the sink increases ease-of-use for someone in a wheelchair. Grab bars and slip-resistant flooring in a bathroom allow people to steady themselves — and handy feature even for those with no mobility issues. Here’s an elegant example of a bathroom with those features.

Even grab bars have been designed to custom fit different styles and more seamlessly integrate into the bathroom. Here is an example of one company designing a variety of bars.

One of the most important elements of universal design is also one of the most difficult to incorporate into an existing home during a remodel — wider doorways and hallways. The standard is doorways that are at least 36-inches wide (which is also great for moving furniture) and hallways that are at least 48-inches wide.

Similarly, stair-free entrances to the home and ground-floor bedrooms can be difficult to incorporate into an existing home. A wide variety of ramp designs can be a relatively cheap and effective way to solve entry accessibility.

With smart design, architects can create entirely accessible homes that don’t show any obtrusive signs of being a home for senior living. Here’s a nice example of that.

Accessibility Adaptations Can Increase Value

Though you might think adaptations designed for people with disabilities could reduce the value of your home, the United Spinal Association says it’s just the opposite.

“Universal design is for people of all ages and abilities,” they say. “As the US population gets older, especially the baby boomers, they will be remaining in their homes longer. Many are opting to renovate their homes, and others are choosing additions to help them to age in place. Some are purchasing new homes of a smaller size than their last home. They are looking for all the features and comforts to be able to maintain their independence and stay in their homes for the rest of their lifetimes. Universal design features provide for safety and add value to a home.”

But if you’re reluctant to believe that — or wonder if it holds true even in a place like Austin, which has a reputation for being a magnet for the young — consider what Austin home builders have had to say on the topic.

The Austin Business Journal reported that home builders are trying to target the population, in part, by accommodating their changing needs.

“Wes Peoples, founder of Wes People Homes, has been targeting boomers with its variety of Austin home developments and some trends have emerged, he (Brent Baker, vice president of land for PulteGroup Inc.) said. “They want some highly customized features such as separate casitas for adult children and guests, zen rooms for yoga and meditation, tech or reading niches, roll-in showers that can accommodate wheelchairs, cozy outdoor living spaces and pet amenities such as a pet washing station, an under the staircase pet house and a designated place in the kitchen for pets to eat.”

And a high percentage of those baby boomers are prepared to buy because they grew up through a mostly prosperous time in the U.S. Boomers control more than three-quarters of personal financial assets in the country and their buying power accounts for more than half of all consumer spending.

That is evident in the success of more traditional, age-limited retirement communities, such as Sun City, a 55-and-older development just north of Austin. The planned community opened in 1995 and has had mostly steady growth since to more than 7,000 homes.

And a 2,400-home expansion is underway.

In all, 10 million of the nation’s 26.2 million older households — or 38 percent — include at least one member with a disability, according to the Center for Housing Policy. Disability rates are linked to age, affecting one in four households aged 65 to 74, rising to almost two-thirds of those age 85 and up.

But, the good news is that innovative design concepts are paving the way for a new style of retirement living that isn’t just for retirees.