Renovation Contractor
August 2016

Feature writing

Aging in place

This fea­ture story intro­duced con­trac­tors to a poten­tial mar­ket: seniors who ren­o­vate to stay longer in their own homes.

Carla Berezowksi had just been turned down for a lunch date—by her mother, who wouldn’t join her because she hadn’t had a shower yet. “Why can’t you just jump in the shower right now?” asked Berezowski, who was sur­prised to learn that her mother, who occa­sion­ally feels dizzy, only used the shower when Berezowski’s father was home. She was also sur­prised that her mother hadn’t asked for ren­o­va­tion help; “After all, I am in the busi­ness,” she says now, laugh­ing. Berezowski made another offer, this time to apply non-​slip coat­ing to the shower floor, install a grab bar that looks like a towel rack, and pick up a portable phone that her mother can bring into the bath­room. “Now, Mom has her inde­pen­dence back.” 

Aging-​in-​place” ren­o­va­tions, even the sim­ple changes that Berezowksi made, help seniors live in their own homes safely, inde­pen­dently, and com­fort­ably. Such mod­i­fi­ca­tions usu­ally fol­low the prin­ci­ples of uni­ver­sal design, the belief that the built envi­ron­ment should be use­able by every­one, regard­less of age, abil­ity, or sta­tus. It’s a niche mar­ket that Berezoski, pres­i­dent of Aging in Place Calgary, has been work­ing in since 2008, when a cou­ple of clients asked for acces­si­ble ren­o­va­tions. She saw a larger busi­ness oppor­tu­nity. Needing to learn more, she went to the U.S. to get a Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) des­ig­na­tion from the National Association of Home Builders.

The mar­ket Berezowski iden­ti­fied has much poten­tial for con­trac­tors. According to a 2013 poll for RBC, 83% of Canadian baby boomers want to remain in their own homes as long as they can. “The baby boom really didn’t get going until about 1951. That lead­ing edge is just retir­ing now,” says Russell Mathew, a Toronto-​based plan­ning con­sul­tant spe­cial­iz­ing in demo­graph­ics. The peak year for births in Canada was 1959. If those 57-​year-​old boomers don’t need aging-​in-​place ren­o­va­tions now, they’ll soon be think­ing about them. And they have the money to do it, says Mathew. “There are excep­tions, but gen­er­ally boomers have done well. They’ve worked all their lives, in a pretty good econ­omy, and they have a lot more sav­ings than the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion.” He sug­gests that the mar­ket for aging-​in-​place renos may be stronger in smaller cities, where “there’s a smaller selec­tion of apart­ments and other options to move into, and those choices are not seen as desirable.”

Take Ted and Donna Pearce of St. Thomas, Ont. An active work­ing cou­ple, just past 60, they’ve recently moved from a house built in the 1980s to a new house on a much smaller lot. “We’re hop­ing to get another 25-​plus years on the right side of the dirt,” says Ted. “We need a house that will work into our eight­ies.” Collaborating closely with their builder, Don West Homes, they chose a lay­out that keeps “every essen­tial for every­day liv­ing, includ­ing laun­dry, on one floor,” he says. “That was impor­tant to us.” Before mov­ing, a knee injury reminded him why: “Every time I used the stairs, I thought about what life would be like if this pain were per­ma­nent.” Choosing a small lot, with land­scap­ing that will require lit­tle upkeep in the future, is also part of the Pearces’ long-​term strat­egy; reduc­ing main­te­nance is another aging-​in-​place principle.

For ren­o­va­tors, aging in place means think­ing ahead—knowing what fea­tures can be built now to pre­pare for the future. Adding grab bars, as Berezowski did, is much eas­ier if the block­ing is already in the walls. Although build­ing codes don’t require block­ing in every bath­room ren­o­va­tion, it’s a value-​added upgrade that con­trac­tors should sug­gest, says Moneca Kaiser, owner of Moneca Kaiser Design Build in Ottawa. But before the wall is closed, she warns, “Take a pic­ture of the block­ing and give your clients a map. They’ll for­get where it is.”

Kaiser encour­ages clients to plan for future one-​floor liv­ing, whether it’s a new build—“where you can incor­po­rate uni­ver­sal design seamlessly”—or a ren­o­va­tion. As well as includ­ing a main-​floor bath­room, “I try to design a din­ing room or fam­ily room that can eas­ily be closed off, maybe with large French doors, to become a bed­room if needed.” She also con­sid­ers where a care­giver could live, per­haps on the sec­ond floor, in a con­verted base­ment fam­ily room, or in a bach­e­lor apartment.

Building in such flex­i­bil­ity helps a space adapt to future needs, espe­cially in the work­horse of the house, the kitchen. “You can stage a kitchen design, so it works now for a 40-​year-​old and yet some­one like my mom, who has arthri­tis, can use it com­fort­ably too,” says Berezowski. “Then as the owner ages, take out one sec­tion of cab­i­nets and put in a shorter counter there.” Lower or adjustable-​height work sur­faces can be used by some­one who’s seated.

To accom­mo­date wheel­chairs, aging-​in-​place prin­ci­ples call for 36″ hall­ways and doors, a tough require­ment to meet in older homes. (Swing-​clear hinges can some­times add enough clear­ance to a nar­rower door.) Widening door­ways and halls can be a major ren­o­va­tion. “Think of the entry­way,” says Berezowski. “You have to break through the wall, add a wider header, close in the walls, and repair the exte­rior fin­ish. It adds up.” Sometimes, con­vert­ing a win­dow into an entry is a bet­ter, more cost-​effective solu­tion. An alter­na­tive to widen­ing inte­rior halls and doors is remov­ing them entirely—open con­cept can be more senior friendly. But, says Berezowski, “In older, inner-​city homes with nar­row hall­ways, lots of walls and seg­re­gated rooms, unless some­one is really set on stay­ing, open­ing up those places can be pro­hib­i­tively expensive.”

On the upper end of aging-​in-​place costs are res­i­den­tial ele­va­tors, which can eas­ily top $30,000, says Richard Speare, a con­trac­tor in Barrie, Ont., who spe­cial­izes in ren­o­va­tions for acces­si­bil­ity. This isn’t a com­mon ren­o­va­tion; he’s only worked on three or four over the past 20 years. “We do the car­pen­try, but part­ner with an ele­va­tor com­pany to install the equip­ment.” And clients with­out an imme­di­ate need for an ele­va­tor rarely plan for one down the road. “I’ve only built one shaft in antic­i­pa­tion of future use,“ he says, “for some­one with a med­ical con­di­tion that will prob­a­bly dete­ri­o­rate over time.”

Unless we start ren­o­vat­ing exist­ing hous­ing stock now, Kaiser sug­gests, we may face a new hous­ing cri­sis, where aging baby boomers sim­ply don’t have enough places to live com­fort­ably and safely. Should more aging-​in-​place and uni­ver­sal design con­cepts be man­dated in the build­ing code? “Then we’ll just get a lot of stu­pid uni­ver­sal design,” says Kaiser. “These changes are always bet­ter if they’re consumer-​driven. We need more con­sumer edu­ca­tion.” Speare, too, points out that mod­i­fi­ca­tions often need to be tai­lored to the home­owner. Grab-​bar block­ing installed now, accord­ing to require­ments in code, may not be in the right posi­tion when it’s needed years later—one rea­son he’s a fan of Moen’s mount­ing sys­tem, which can be securely installed even where there’s no block­ing. “There are typ­i­cal places for grab bars,” he says, “but they’re not always the right places.” 

Knowing exactly where the grab bars should go takes more than a code dia­gram or even com­mon sense. The CAPS train­ing pro­gram that jump­started Berezowski’s busi­ness is a three-​day course, cost­ing about $1,500, and cov­er­ing top­ics such as needs assess­ments, design solu­tions, and mar­ket­ing strate­gies for aging-​in-​place ser­vices. The course also includes hands-​on learn­ing, lit­er­ally: hold a ten­nis ball, cover your hand with a sock and try to open a door. This exer­cise sim­u­lates the expe­ri­ence of some­one with rheuma­toid arthri­tis. Currently, Berezowski is the only rec­og­nized CAPS trainer in Canada. She offers the course in Calgary, but will also travel to deliver the train­ing to groups.

For Speare, aging-​in-​place train­ing took a less for­mal route—experience and obser­va­tion. He fre­quently works with occu­pa­tional ther­a­pists, who ana­lyze their clients’ needs and plan adap­tive ren­o­va­tions. “After a while, you know what they’re going to sug­gest,” he says.

You have to lis­ten to and observe older clients,” says Berezowksi. “And you have to take time. They want some­one they can talk to and trust.” As part of assess­ing what seniors need, she often asks clients to make her a cup of tea. Then she can watch them manoeu­vre in their homes. “I often see clients who ‘fur­ni­ture surf,’ mean­ing they steady them­selves on fur­ni­ture as they walk by.” It’s a sign they may need non-​slip floor­ing, instead of soft, plush car­pets, and bet­ter footwear.

Although home­own­ers should be plan­ning ahead, most aging-​in-​place ren­o­va­tions are still reac­tive. Berezowksi says she’ll get a call from an adult child after a par­ent has been hos­pi­tal­ized or from a senior whose doc­tor has sug­gested grab bars. Younger clients and active seniors, on the other hand, start with other ren­o­va­tion goals and may balk when con­trac­tors sug­gests any­thing that sig­nals “acces­si­bil­ity.”

I can con­vince them they should install the block­ing, but not the actual grab bars,” says Kaiser. “They’re in denial. Everything in soci­ety tells us we’re immor­tal.” She has more suc­cess if she puts the issue in terms clients can relate to: “If you break a leg, which can hap­pen at any age, you’ll really appre­ci­ate a bath­room and a room you can use as a bed­room on the main floor.” The bach­e­lor apart­ment that may even­tu­ally house a live-​in care­giver is more appeal­ing to younger home­own­ers if it’s pre­sented as a way to help pay the mortgage.

Seniors some­times resist aging-​in-​place ren­o­va­tions because they think it shows they’re los­ing their inde­pen­dence,” says Berezowksi, cir­cling back to her expe­ri­ence with her mother. “But, in fact, we’re giv­ing them more independence.”

That’s what makes this work feel good,” says Speare. “We’re often mak­ing someone’s life much better.”

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