Baby boomers adapt homes for retirement

Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 10:59 am

Almost 90 percent of those ages 50 and older want to remain in their homes indefinitely, according to an AARP survey.

That desire is driving a trend toward remodeling homes to accommodate “aging in place” as baby boomers retire in waves.

The National Association of Home Builders has found that among remodeler members surveyed, 72 percent are already completing aging in place projects for clients, said Stephen Melman, director of economic services for NAHB.

Of those, the most popular installation has been bathroom grab bars, followed in order by higher toilets, curbless showers, widened doorways and ramps or lowered thresholds, he said.

“The idea of all these projects is to make it easier to spend another 10 years in the home, but not make it feel institutional,” Melman said. “Good quality design is implicit in all of this. Otherwise it just doesn’t work.”

Mequon accessible bathroom

Many homeowners are seeking to avoid moving into assisted living and nursing home facilities for a variety of reasons by remaining in their homes, he said.

Chris Egner, owner of Chris Egner Design Build Remodel LLC and a Four Seasons Sunrooms & Windows dealer in New Berlin, is a master certified remodeler and universal design expert. He has experienced an uptick in business as homeowners accommodate longer stays in their homes.

“I would say that the fact that people are realizing that they can stay in their homes longer if they make these changes I think is allowing people to stay out of assisted living centers or stay out of nursing homes,” Egner said. “I think that is a boon to our business. It opens up a whole new segment of the market.”

Minor space Marcet

Some of the features he incorporates into aging in place projects are wider hallways and removing thresholds in entrances to make it easier to get around the home by wheelchair or walking device.

Paddle lights are often used instead of light switches and levered door handles in place of knobs, Egner said. Curbless showers allow the user to roll in with a wheelchair.

Not everyone who is incorporating what’s called “universal design” in remodeling projects is doing it specifically for aging in place, he said. Some want to accommodate disabled friends and relatives or provide the option to easily install additional modifications when they get older.

And others just plain prefer the more accessible, easy to use features of universal design innovations like easy to access, task lighted kitchen cabinet drawers.

“There are some customers that are specifically, the focus of their remodel is the aging in place type thing,” Egner said. “But for many other customers who are doing just a kitchen or a bathroom or what have you, they have that aging in place mindset. Many of my even younger customers are familiar with it, there’s more exposure to that now. People are thinking about that.”

A middle-aged homeowner completing a bathroom remodeling project may not need grab bars in the shower right now, but some are opting to put the backing on the wall to make installation simple if it’s needed later, he said.

The cost of aging in place renovations is variable, but many times they are similar in price to more traditional designs, Egner said. A complex adaptation, like a curbless shower, might be a bit more expensive.

“There’s some additional cost there, but none of them are real excessive,” he said. “It’s much less costly to do it that way now than later try to take something out and modify it.”


The glass sunrooms Egner markets through Four Seasons are also popular with aging homeowners who may not have the capability to walk around outside but want to sit in a sunlit room with views of the outdoors. Their “conservaglass” material allows light through, but reflects heat in both directions to allow year-round use.

Baby boomers have more retirement living options than their parents had, Egner said. They can avoid going to a nursing home because of the improved design, materials, cabinetry, plumbing fixtures and other products on the market today.

David Pekel, president and chief executive officer of Pekel Construction & Remodeling Inc. in Wauwatosa, is a master certified remodeler, certified aging in place specialist and first vice president of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry Milwaukee chapter.

He has experienced an uptick in projects that incorporate aging and place and universal design considerations over the past five years, since baby boomers began reaching retirement age.

“It may not be at the top of the consumer’s mind, but there is an innate desire for them to make modifications to their home that allows them to remain there as long as possible,” Pekel said. “They may not know the vernacular of aging in place and universal design, but they know some of the things they want to do because they’ve experienced some of the limitations of their home.”

Baby boomers are a stubborn bunch, though. They don’t want to be told they’re getting old and should plan remodeling projects around aging in place, he said.

“Therein lies the cornerstone of good design transparency,” Pekel said. “To be able to make in-home modifications that not only the occupant but visitors to the home can utilize in an inconspicuous fashion that is intuitive and still is of a high aesthetic.”

Most people remodel their homes one room at a time, he said. There usually isn’t an overarching whole home aging in place strategy, but once they experience it in one room, they are often more comfortable with using the design in other projects.

Bathrooms and kitchens

Bathrooms are the most popular room to remodel right now, with plenty of people making substantive modifications including custom showers.

“They don’t want to climb over the bathtub anymore,” Pekel said. “If they’re taking baths, it is occasionally. So barrier free showers or low threshold showers that are larger, that have seating, that have multiple water sources…are very popular choices for our Generation X and our Baby Boomer clients.”

With the average bathroom, which is about 63 square feet, it’s not uncommon to spend about $30,000 on a complete remodel, he said.

In kitchen modifications, Pekel has tried in many cases to reduce the number of wall-hung cabinets, since reaching over the head and seeing in tall cabinets can be difficult for the elderly.

“Aging in place tends to focus the conversation on assistive adaptations” for those who want to maintain their privacy and autonomy as they age, he said.

These include changing doorknobs to levers and light switches to paddles for easier use by those with arthritis, eliminating carpeting and variations in floor height for easier walker and wheelchair use and creating greater contrast in lighting to make it easier to see the task at hand.

“You can accommodate aging in place by making minor modifications such as raised height toilet seats that have integrated grab bars,” Pekel said. “You can modify door openings to enlarge them easily.”

An emerging trend among aging in place remodelers, he said, is the addition of in-home caregiver living quarters and home medical monitoring technology.

“You may live 80 miles away from your parents and you want to know that they’re OK,” he said. “They’re not going to pick up the phone and call you constantly, so you may put in a monitoring system that tells you somebody is in the house and they’re moving around.”

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