'Aging in Place' a Growing Local and National Trend

Dec 13, 2017

Chatham resident John Sweeney had his bathroom retrofitted with grab bars and a bench. The 80-year-old doesn't need them now, but anticipates using them as he grows older.
Credit Kathryn Eident / WCAI-FM

Three-quarters of Americans over age 45 live in single-family homes, according to AARP. As homeowners age though, it can become increasingly difficult for them to remain in their homes safely. In recent years, a growing number of people have begun retrofitting their homes with new safety features and technology to help them live in their homes longer.

It's a trend called "Aging in Place."

John Sweeney loves home improvements. The retired businessman has owned his bungalow-style home in South Chatham since the early 1980s, and he’s been making tweaks and additions since he bought it.

“I’ve owned it now for 33 years, but it’s nothing like what I bought,” he said. “It was a wreck, but I liked the location. We had birds living in the attic.”

At age 80, Sweeney is still healthy and active. But he knows he may not always be this way. That’s why each renovation he’s made has been done with one thing in mind.

“There will come a time when I just won’t be able to do it anymore, and I don’t want to feel shut in,” he said. “It’s one thing to have to stay in, but it’s another thing to feel shut in.”

Sweeney designed his whole house to allow him to live here as long as possible. He created a sitting room to his bedroom on the first floor, anticipating a day when it may be hard to walk around. His bathroom now has a shower with a seat, grab bars, and other safety features. He added a second story addition to provide living space for a future caregiver. 

Chatham resident John Sweeney demonstrates a hand-held shower nozzle fitted with a valve so he can turn the water on or off from his shower seat.
Credit Kathryn Eident / WCAI-FM

“I thought I might get a teacher or somebody who works here year-round if I needed somebody to be here at night,” he said.

Sweeney is one of a growing number of older Americans who are retrofitting their homes so they can live in them longer. Multiple reports by AARP have found that most people over age 65 want to live in their homes as long as possible.

Experts call the phenomenon “Aging in Place,” and it’s a growing trend in the construction industry. That includes here on Cape Cod, where more than 80 percent of the housing stock is made up of single-family homes. 

Dan Bawden knows this well. The Houston, Texas, construction firm owner designed the first-ever aging in place certification course in 2001, after seeing one of those AARP reports.

“Everybody knows somebody in their life that has had their living space become a problem and a challenge to live in,” he said. “At some point, they wished there were some solutions out there.”

His idea was to teach builders and remodelers the basics of how to install everything from wheel chair-accessible ramps, to how to use the latest home technology to make a space safer. The course even included a section on how respectfully work with clients who have mobility, cognitive, or other issues.

We didn't really advertise it, and we had a maximum of 50 seats in the classroom. We didn't know if anybody was going to show up other than the writers,” he said. “Lo and behold, more than 50 people showed up.”

It was standing room only. Another surprise: most of the participants came from outside the construction industry.

“There were occupational therapists, physical therapists, gerontological specialists, discharge nurses, bankers, and realtors,” he said. “We realized, ‘We think we’re on to something here.’”

Fast forward nearly 17 years, and more than 7,000 people from a variety of industries have taken Bawden’s certified aging in place course through the National Association of Home Builders.

“They’re getting a lot of good information that they can use to give to their patients,” he said.

Bawden says the courses also teach participants that the renovations don’t have to look like they were designed for a hospital or a sick room; they can be beautiful and helpful to all ages, too.

“[For instance], sometimes we’ll put in motion detectors, so that when you walk into the room the lights come on,” he explained. “You can set how long it stays on after motion stops, so if you want the lights to go off five minutes after someone’s crawled into bed, you can set it for that.”

On the Cape, the trend is slowly catching on. Ten local builders just participated in an Aging in Place course last month, according to the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Cape Cod. In Yarmouth, contractor Steve Klug has been using his Aging in Place certification for the past few years.

“I think more people are just thinking about it in general,” Klug said. “I get this sense from folks, no matter what their age, ‘I like this house. I want to stay in this house. What can I do to make it happen?’”

Klug now incorporates the principals he learned into nearly every job he does with his five-person team, including the bathroom renovation at Chatham resident John Sweeney’s house.

I think it just becomes one of the criteria in that list of things that you consider for a project. It's another box to check,” he said. “It doesn't necessarily cost you anything to make those considerations.”

For those who may find the concept of ‘aging in place’ a bit daunting, Sweeney says to take it a little bit at a time. Homeowners can start with a project as small as changing out a door knob for a levered handle to help arthritic hands, or moving electrical outlets higher to avoid having to bend down to plug things in.

“There’s a lot to think about, and it can’t all be done at once,” Sweeney said. “When you’re older you have to think about not only what I’m capable of doing, but what is the smartest thing for me to do.”

For Sweeney, the money spent on those things now is worth the peace of mind he has knowing he can age gracefully, and in place, on his own terms.