Aging in place: You don’t have to move

This article originally appeared in the Commercial Appeal on Apr. 18, 2013

When they bought their four-bedroom Lakeland condo in 1989, Butch and Nancy Turner weren’t thinking 24 or 10 or even five years down the road.

“Nancy and I were both healthy and had no medical issues of any kind,” Butch said. “It never did cross our minds that having all of our bedrooms upstairs might become a problem in later years. We were young and dumb and happy, and it just wasn’t an issue at all.”

But when, at age 42, Nancy was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, the Turners were forced to confront accessibility issues they simply hadn’t thought they’d face — especially so young. Now 56, Nancy uses a walker.

“About 2½ years ago, we decided after long talks and looking at all our options that we wanted to stay in our condo,” Butch said. “We didn’t want to sell and downsize or move into a zero-lot-line neighborhood. We liked our home. We’d been here, at the time, for 22 years.”

When the Turners began researching ways to make their house more accessible for Nancy, they found that the home and product design industries were ready for them. An online search led the couple to Next Day Access, a Bartlett-based franchise business that offers in-home assessments and a range of products and services designed to improve accessibility.

The Turners hired the company to install a motorized stair lift that allows Nancy to easily navigate the stairs.

“We have the ability to do grab bars, tub steps, roll-in showers,” said Karen Riker, marketing director for Next Day Access. “We have the ability within 24 hours with our standard product line to completely make those changes to your home so that you do feel safer.”

Companies like Next Day Access and other businesses that aim to help homeowners “age in place” are sprouting up in increasing numbers. That’s because, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the country’s senior population will more than double to 80 million between now and 2050 — with roughly one out of five U.S. adults over age 65.

Designer Leslie Shankman-Cohn of Memphis-based Jill Hertz Interior Design has devoted much of her career to researching and educating consumers about universal design, or design that addresses the needs of users at all ages and levels of ability. A Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS), Shankman-Cohn was a member of the American Society of Interior Designers’ Committee for Aging in Place, which “set the standards for the industry.”

Now, the future she’s been preparing for is here.

“All these years, we’ve been talking about baby boomers getting older,” she said. “We’ve been projecting that between 2013 and 2015 we were going to start seeing that wave, and gee whiz, it’s here. That’s why we’re starting to see this industry take off, and we’ll see more and more of it in the next few years.”

Nashville-based interior designer Sara Beth Warne began offering aging-in-place services when clients began asking her to help design spaces for their aging parents. Today, she co-owns Aging in Place Transition Services, a company that helps clients shift into “forever homes,” whether that means downsizing to a new space or adapting existing homes to meet their needs.

“People were asking for more of that help, and my own parents were aging, my friends’ parents were aging,” Warne said. “So I started looking into it. For several years, I did it under the guise of my interior design company. But I found there was a cry for help out there, and I decided I wanted to do it under its own umbrella.”

Warne sought specialized training, earning CAPS certification and learning how to help clients not only design and organize their spaces, but also organize their lives and downsize their possessions to make their homes manageable as they age. She’s pleased, she said, that more companies are offering not just aging-in- place-related products, but savvy service that’s sensitive to the needs of an older clientele.

“We’re very selective as to who we work with,” she said.

The Turners, for their part, have made several changes that have made it possible to remain in the house they love. Along with the new stair lift, they removed downstairs carpeting and replaced it with laminate flooring that’s easy for Nancy to navigate with her walker. They also made changes in the master bathroom, adding rails and a seat in the shower.

These changes offered a better solution for the Turners than a full-scale renovation, even though the home’s floor plan lent itself well to a downstairs bedroom addition.

“Nancy didn’t have any interest in that at all,” Butch said. “She didn’t want to be isolated with no access to the upstairs. The washer/dryer is upstairs also, so that would have been an issue with having things normal here.”

And that issue — normalcy — is key, Warne said. People need their homes to be livable, but they don’t need daily reminders of the things they can’t do.

“It’s a slap in the face because it’s an acknowledgment that you need help and that you’re aging,” she said. “We come up with ways to make it less obvious and well-designed so (clients) aren’t faced with a hospital bathroom.”

The psychology and aesthetics behind universal design are key reasons Shankman-Cohn works to educate her clients and the public at large about aging in place. The truth is, she said, universal design is design that’s more accessible for everyone, not just older people or people with disabilities.

For example, a curbless shower is ideal for homeowners like Nancy Turner — but it doesn’t have to look clinical.

“If it’s done properly, it’s aesthetically pleasing, makes the bathroom feel bigger, and there’s no curb to step over, so it’s safer,” Shankman-Cohn said. “It’s also more open and airy, and there are no doors to clean. A lot of younger clients like it purely for the aesthetic value and don’t even think about the universal design aspects of it.”

The same goes for exterior ramps. Often derided and dreaded, wheelchair ramps can be built in a way that blends in with a home’s landscaping and even adds to its curb appeal, she said.

Aging in place is a concept everyone should be thinking about these days, Warne said — even young families. Her daughter, who lives in Collierville, has young children and is considering a move to a house with more space. She and her husband are in their mid-30s, but they’re planning ahead.

“She’s thinking about wanting a bedroom on the first floor, and not all houses have that,” Warne said. “I’ve told her, ‘If this is your forever home, you should think about it.'”