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As the largest generation of the last century approaches their senior years, the aging-in-place philosophy looks to become the next great revolution in housing.
What do today’s baby boomers and Disney’s Peter Pan have in common? According to research done by Doctor Donald Shiner of Mount Saint Vincent University, they both feel as though they will never grow old. Now everyone knows that acting young can keep you feeling young at heart and possibly lead to a longer life, but Dr. Shiner is warning boomers that denying or neglecting the fact that they are aging prevents boomers from making necessary changes to their home and lifestyle.
“1,000 boomers are turning 65 each day as of January 2011 for the next 20 years,” explains Dr. Shiner. “There is no way Canada as a country can take care of that many people. Hospitals and senior housing just won’t have enough space and the country just can’t do it financially.”
This age wave is a ticking time bomb the residential housing industry has been discussing for years. Now that many are aware of the issue, industry leaders are undergoing significant changes to accommodate Canada’s rapidly aging population.
Aging-in-place is the new term, and builders and renovators who understand the issues of an aging population are starting to educate boomers on options available to make life comfortable, safe, and accessible. Aging-in-place design principles can be applied to almost any style of home.
“Builders are now faced with an opportunity to make life better for all clients as they age,” says Dr. Shiner. “Not only can the home have a higher resale value, but the space becomes accessible to seniors, the disabled, children and anyone recovering from an accident.”
Aging-in-place modifications can be as simple as changing the doorframes from 32 inches to 36 inches, or installing a comfort-height toilet with grab bars in the bathroom. The bathroom is an accident-prone space not only for seniors, but also for adults and families, and renovations can be done now to keep people out of the emergency room and safe in their own home.
Peter Briand, owner of Econo Renovations and Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist notes that his background as a paramedic has allowed him to keep accessibility, safety and independent living at the forefront of his renovation business.
“For so long, Canadians have been building and living in two story homes with multiple decks, levels and staircases,” says Briand. “It’s time to stop building houses for Peter Pan and start looking at ways to keep people in their homes for longer.”
According to Dr. Shiner’s research, 97% of Atlantic Canadian boomers say they wish to stay in their existing home as long as possible. The only issue resides with making boomers understand that changes should be done sooner rather than later.
“Aging people with or without mobility challenges still want to live a normal, independent life,” says Briand. “Modifications to accommodate this should be functional to meet the needs of the entire family, while still being appealing in both look and form.”
For example in the kitchen, sinks and cook tops with an open space underneath provide clearance for a wheelchair and work with the look of a modern kitchen. Eliminating under the sink cabinet space can be balanced by adding pull-down shelving to existing cabinetry, making full use of other storage areas and allowing easy access without a stepstool or additional strain.
Bathrooms can easily be made wheelchair friendly by replacing a traditional stand up shower or tub with a roll-in shower. Eliminating the step allows for easy access and maximizes on space. The look of the bathroom can stay the same and tiles can be chosen to complement the existing colours of the bathroom.
“Building homes for people to get old in doesn’t have to look like an assisted living facility,” says Dr. Shiner. “If boomers keep building homes that ignore the fact that the population is rapidly aging, they will be forced out of their homes and into hospitals at a much earlier age.”
Many boomers are still questioning the value of altering a home to suit old age. Renovations and technology upgrades can sometimes be more costly than downsizing or moving into a condo or bungalow, for example.
“What drives boomers to want to stay in their home is familiarity,” says Dr. Shiner. “You know your home, you know the neighbours and you know the local resources. In the minds of many boomers, staying in a home unsuited for old age is worth the risk of moving someplace else.”
Builders, renovators and designers recognize the dilemma of younger homeowners in their late forties and early fifties not wanting to change their lifestyle or the physical appeal of their home until later on, once age begins to affect their daily functioning. But what many don’t realize is that changes can be made to any home, at any age and still reflect a modern stylish décor.
Integrated home technology is at the forefront of this shift in residential building. Already many innovative aging-in-place products are available to actively monitor an individual living alone. The idea of being monitored may impede someone’s sense of independence, but for individuals with severe health conditions or early onset of Alzheimer’s or dementia, home sensing and monitoring systems can save a life.
The reach of home healthcare monitoring extends from monitoring daily activity patterns to the weight and blood pressure of a client. An integrated system of sensors can detect movement in the bedroom after dark and automatically illuminate the hallway for easy access to the bathroom. Or daily feedback to a healthcare provider can be sent instantly if the medical monitoring system detects abnormal blood pressure, glucose level, weight or heart rate.
Suzanne Wamboldt, owner of uberHome CareSolutions, has seen first hand the kind of positive effects this new environmental and medical monitoring system can have on a senior’s ability to live at home longer. As a physiotherapist and Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist, she considers an individual’s physical and functional abilities as well as the family’s caregiving concerns when assessing the need for aging-in-place technology.
The capital cost of a comprehensive activity health status and communication monitoring system ranges from $2,000 to $6,000 which can amount to only $200 to $300 per month until the system is paid in full. The monthly cost of monitoring is roughly $49.
“A $2,000 investment which prolongs your time at home is less than the cost of one month at an assisted living facility,” says Wamboldt. “Comprehensive systems give peace of mind to family and there are many social benefits like being able to access photos, emails and even Skype from a television channel rather than a computer. A senior living alone can benefit from technology without navigating a computer.”
Several studies indicate that boomers recognize that there is a place for technology in helping them live more independently and they are willing to pay for it if it helps them stay at home. uberHome CareSolutions’ goal is to find the technology solution that is the best fit for each individual and their family.
Wamboldt also educates aging boomers and seniors about becoming an informed consumer when considering accessible living renovations.
“It is very important to involve a team of professionals. Builders and designers should have experience with barrier-free design principles. If an individual has specific physical or functional limitations, it is essential to also include a health professional, such as an Occupational Therapist or Physiotherapist specially trained in home modification assessments,” says Wamboldt. “Without a collaborative approach, the modifications may not entirely meet the needs of the client.”
Companies such as Lawtons Drugs take things one step further by offering in-home medical deliveries and supplies. Lawtons Home HealthCare has been offering services for over 20 years. Four years ago, Lawtons Home HealthCare expanded to include additional services that assist Atlantic Canadians with everything from wheelchairs to stair lifts.
“We offer an all-inclusive service that retrofits the home for aging-in-place while still providing all the traditional services of a drugstore,” says Stephen Whitman, Lawtons Home Healthcare Professional. “When people call Lawtons Drugs, they gain access to rehabilitation specialists, occupational therapists and a team of trained installers.”
With the industry aware and ready to take action on the future of aging boomers, Dr. Shiner among others are looking to the government to help alleviate the cost for such large home modifications.
Dr. Shiner explains that boomers know they are growing old, but in their minds feel younger and therefore crave the same house and lifestyle of their more able years. But age-in-place renovations are beneficial to all Atlantic Canadians as well as the government. Boomers live at home longer, homes have higher resale value and fewer hospital beds are filled.
The government offered rebates in the past for homeowner making energy efficient improvements to their homes. Similar programs are available to assist seniors in home modification, but more assistance is needed on behalf of the government for boomers in the planning stages wishing to build an age-in-place home or for those wishing to make age-in-place modifications to an existing home, believe Dr. Shiner and Briand.
“There are many boomers nearing retirement who can’t afford to pay for renovations,” says Briand. “It is up to the government to assist in changing homes now rather than absorb healthcare costs in the future.”
Boomers can either look at aging-in-place modifications as a key step in preserving their independence, or as an unnecessary cost that can wait another five to ten years.
“Either way, the technology is here,” says Dr. Shiner. “Reality is – growing old is natural and inevitable. It is now time for the individual to take responsibility for aging in their own home.”
Boomers who prepare their homes now have a higher chance of living happy, safe and independent lives well into old age without being forced into hospital or an assisted living facility. Atlantic Canadians have a wealth of resources emerging to help make the right choices when it comes to building a home for the future.
No one wants to leave their home as they age. And with today’s technological advances, no one has to.