FREDERICK – Truby LaGarde and Paul Lambertson were thinking outside the box — or rather, the closet. The couple, who live in a four-story townhouse in Frederick, where they also rent properties, was looking to make their home more accessible as they got older.
“We had lived in this house for about 20 years when we decided that we needed to look into the future as to where we wanted to be,” said LaGarde, 59.
Ultimately, they decided to add an elevator accessible from all four floors of their home, and to install safety features in their bathroom. They completed the elevator installation between fall 2003 and summer 2004, removing four hall closets that were conveniently located near each other.
“I’m not really crazy about the elevator,” said Lambertson, 75. But LaGarde pointed out that Lambertson has had knee problems, and steps have been hard for him.
“We try to use the stairs when we can because of the exercise,” she added.
Bob Neary, 70, of Silver Spring, who usually uses a wheelchair, hasn’t made such lavish alterations, but has added handlebars in the bathroom and a bigger worktable in the living room. He is hoping to move to a one-story house soon, where he anticipates he may have to make changes to the bathroom to make it more accessible.
LaGarde, Lambertson and Neary are part of a growing number of senior citizens who are choosing to renovate their homes for accessible use rather than move to a nursing home or assisted facility, according to AARP, a nonprofit member organization for people 50 and older. The trend is called aging in place.
According to a September 2006 survey commissioned by AARP, 90 percent of seniors said they preferred to stay in their own homes and communities, up from 83 percent in a May 2003 survey.
Marlene Riley, a Baltimore occupational therapist, works with older Americans after an event that causes them to change their living habits. When faced with the option of staying in their environment or moving to an assisted-living facility, she said “almost always” they would rather stay home.
“I think sometimes people decide to move because they don’t realize there’s an alternative,” Riley said.
“I’m living on my own independently and would not have it any other way,” Neary said, calling the living style in some assisted-care facilities “abominable.”
Beyond personal comfort, cost can be a positive factor to aging in place. An October 2007 survey commissioned by MetLife Mature Market lists the national average cost of living in a nursing home for one year as between $68,985 and $77,745.
LaGarde and Lambertson, who, in addition to their elevator, installed grab bars and other safety features in their bathroom, spent roughly $30,000 on the renovations, they said.
“It was very much worth it in the long run,” said Lambertson, who helped with some of the renovations.
Jason Levinson, a Frederick contractor and president of Maryland Heritage Custom Builders, took an extra step in marketing his services to seniors; he became a certified aging-in-place specialist.
“I really thought it was something that could help my business, considering the age shift currently happening and still ongoing with the boomer generation,” Levinson said of the program run by the National Association of Home Builders and AARP.
The program, launched in 2002, has certified more than 1,700 professionals including contractors, health care consultants and accessibility specialists. Thirty-four certified aging-in-place professionals work in Maryland, said Kelly Mack, an NAHB spokeswoman.
The certification program requires a three-day seminar, which teaches marketing and design strategies for renovating homes for senior citizen use, according to NAHB.
Eric Anderson, a self-employed accessibility specialist in Baltimore and a licensed Realtor, said the certification has made him more marketable. His work is not specifically with senior citizens but with “catastrophically injured clients” who may need home renovations like those of seniors, he said.
Anderson’s job is to assess his clients’ new housing needs. After he makes his suggestions, he networks with contractors like Levinson and supervises their work.
Renovating a home is more difficult than starting from scratch, Levinson said. Common problems that might arise in remodeling include possible drywall damage when fitting grab bars in the bathroom, or discovering that the house structure does not allow for a wider doorway. “We might need three feet, then it turns out there’s a bearing wall and we have to replace a header and remove a light switch,” he said.
Another concern for seniors is affordability. Sometimes seniors “are not as willing to part with money, even if it’s something they may need,” Levinson said.
Families should not be concerned that making alterations will hurt a home’s chances for resale, said Don McGlynn, sales manager at the Bethesda-based RE/MAX Realty Services.
Elevators, in higher-end homes, can be “a big plus” at resale, McGlynn said. And handrails and other small modifications, he added, are easy to uninstall.
“Most people should make improvements to how they live and not worry about resale,” he said.
Ron Mace, a Raleigh, N.C., architect, was among the first to gather the concepts of home accessibility into a larger philosophy now called universal design.
Mace’s goal was to bring professionals together to create a simple, cost-effective living environment that would benefit all types of people, according to The Center for Universal Design, which he founded in 1989.
David Ward, chairman of the Maryland Commission on Disabilities, was among the first to use the design concept in his house after a spinal cord injury in 1977 left him without the use of most of his body.
Among the changes he made to his home in Phoenix, Md., were adding a ramp and large automatic sliding doors for his wheelchair and removing all bumps, or thresholds, near door openings. He also lowered light switches and electrical appliances for easier use.
Sinks and countertops in Ward’s home now stand at two different heights so that he and his live-in assistant can easily use them.
“Everybody benefits throughout the history of the home,” he said, noting that thresholds can be dangerous for people with disabilities, seniors and children learning how to walk.
The project took him seven years and cost $500,000, he said. But due to technological advantages, he predicts similar changes today would not carry such a steep price tag.
Ward estimates that between 6,000 and 7,000 people from across the country have visited his home to see how he utilized universal design.
Most visitors are people who either have a disability or have a family member with one, he said.
He said he has not had as much luck garnering interest from the professional homebuilding community.
“One of the things architects and builders have an issue with is space,” Ward said. A universal design home consumes more square footage, he added, to accommodate a wheelchair or because it is only one level.
“The bottom line is that consumers will change the way that houses are built,” Ward said.
Anderson, another advocate for universal design, has a demo house in Pikesville, Md., to show his clients. “The concepts I put into the house would allow somebody to age in place,” he said, citing larger door frames, keyless entry and an attractive ramp leading to the front door.
“It doesn’t look handicapped, it looks well thought out,” he added.
“It’s all about changing attitudes and looking at things a little differently,” Ward said. “Baby boomers don’t want to go into an institution.”