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Personal Finance > Your Home
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5 steps to an elder-friendly home
New options make homes safer and more comfortable for aging Baby Boomers.
October 22, 2002: 4:10 PM EDT
By Leslie Haggin Geary, CNN/Money Staff Writer

New York (CNN/Money) So, the knees aren't working like they used to and you can no longer sprint down the stairs. It's harder to see at night, too. Face it, you're getting older.

But that doesn't mean you'll have to trade in your house for a senior friendly condo anytime soon. There's lots you can do to make your nest more comfortable and safe enough for you to "age in place."

What's more, many alternations you can make to your existing home - or build into a new one - are inexpensive and stylish, too, thanks to builders and designers who are trying to attract the business of some 76 million aging Baby Boomers.

"Baby Boomers don't want reminders that they're getting older," said Jeff Jenkins, of the National Association of Home Builders.

When your limbo days are over

Anyone with joints that are starting to creak can tell you that bending, squatting and sitting aren't as easy as they used to be.

The solution? Lift appliances off the floor, said Roy Wendt president of Wendt Builders, an Atlanta-based construction firm that specializes in homes designed for seniors.

Consider the washing machine, for example. Wendt simply replaces top-loading machines with front-load washers, which he puts on a platform to make it even easier to get at clothing.

"We raise them by about 16 inches," he says. "You put them on a raised platform covered in tile. It's a pretty subtle feature."

Wendt also installs toilets that are about two inches higher than a standard toilet - about 17 or 18 inches off the ground vs. 16 inches. You can find the taller version from various manufacturers for roughly $450 to $620.

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If you're raising the toilet, why not the bathroom vanity? Building supply stores - or the Internet - have listings for models that are 35 inches tall as opposed to a standard, 30-inch model.

Break out the bifocals

Shining some light on the subject is another important feature in senior-friendly homes, said Margaret Wylde, author of "Building for a Lifetime: The Design and Construction of Fully Accessible Homes." It's also one of the least expensive quick fixes you can make.

"The most important thing you can do is make sure there's adequate lighting in every room," Wylde said.

Place extra lights in strategic places -- like the edge of the bed or the bathroom -- where it's easy to take a spill. You'll also want added lighting near steps and the front door. If you want to get really fancy, you can install remote-controlled lights and dimmers so you can turn on lights from your bed or chair without having to cross dark rooms to find the switch. Again, check your hardware store for one or with manufacturers.Voss Systems in Illinois, for example, makes a model that sells for roughly $40. No electrician required.

Precautions for the bathroom

The bathroom is another trouble spot for seniors, particularly where slippery floors are concerned.

If you don't take baths, consider replacing the tub with a shower that's specifically designed for more vulnerable individuals. You'll want one with a wide door that someone can walk into without having to step over a big barrier. Look for showers that come with deep benches, says Wendt. Sitting down can minimize someone's risk of spills. Of course, if you're going to use a bench,. make sure you've got a hand-held shower head so you can bathe while seated.

AARP, the organization for retired people, recommends individuals install anti-scalding devices that keep water temperatures low. The devices can be as cheap as $15 and be installed quickly into a shower head. But best, they may prevent you from becoming among the 5,000 elderly and young children who are burned by scalding bath and shower water each year.

If you're retrofiting a home for someone who needs far more support than a shower seat, consider installing an automatic pulley device that lifts frail individuals into a bathtub or shower. They're made by companies like Waverley Glen, prices run appoximately $4,500, including installation. Some states provide financial assistance to needy families who qualify to pay for such things as lift systems, notes Waverley President Eric Anderson.

Quick tips to keep from slipping and falling

For the truly frail, stairs are the biggest challenge.

Those stair "glides" that whisk you up and down from floor to floor aren't all they're cracked up to be. Louis Tenenbaum, a strategist who advises builders and individuals on making homes safe for the elderly, said some individuals need help getting in and out of them. And carrying along such things as a walker can be problematic.

"The stair glide is everyone's image of the solution, but it's the bread machine of assisted technology," Tenenbaum says. "There are so many of them in people's homes that aren't in use."

One solution is to move yourself -- or your aging parents if they live with you -- to the ground floor of your home and make sure there's easy access to the kitchen, and a full bathroom and bedroom. To be sure, such solutions cost money as much as $50,000, acknowledges Tenenbaum. But spending the money may also boost a home's value in the long run.

Make the contents of your home more accessible.

The best thing you can do to help retrofit your home is to make life easier with small changes. Replace door knobs with levers that can be pushed down easily. If unlocking doors is a hassle, check out keyless systems that use a key pad or magnetic card.

If reaching for objects is tough, bring them in closer. For example, installing drawers in a kitchen can eliminate the need for you to root around cabinetry for pots and pans.

Closets also can be retrofitted. After all, you may be using a step-ladder to get that hat-box down, but that could be too risky as you age. Instead, consider lowering hanging rods and shelves. If you have the space, try making a walk-in closet or buy closet organizers to make it easier to reach items.

These are just a few ideas. For more, contact groups like the AARP that have more information on "universal design" homes that are elder-friendly.

With a little bit of planning, you can expand the use and enjoyment of home sweet home.  Top of page




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