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Why You Should Remodel to 'Age in Place' Now

Safety and style should go hand in hand when making home modifications 

By Louis Tenenbaum

Near the end of When Harry Met Sally, Billy Crystal races to find Meg Ryan at a New Year’s party. When he finally gets to her, he tells her he ran because “When you know you want to spend the rest of your life with someone, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”
You should think about aging-in-place remodeling the same way. When you go to the trouble and expense of remodeling your home, you should also make it a place where you can live safely and comfortably for the rest of your life. And when the job is done, trust me, you’ll want to “move in” as soon as possible.
(MORE: Why Universal Design Makes Beautiful Sense When Renovating)

If boomers think about aging in place at all, we usually regard it as something we can put off until much later in life. Or to be more accurate, it’s something we hope we can put off until much later. That’s because we associate these kinds of modifications with growing old, which doesn’t sound like much fun.
There’s a better way to think about it, though: Aging in place is about creating a home so beautiful, comfortable and expressive of your personality that you never want to leave. We can’t fight aging, but we can take steps to make our house the place we want it to be.
While entire books, journals, articles, websites, blogs and newsletters are dedicated to the "plan ahead and be safe" aspects, getting people to first read about then act on those issues can be like getting them to go to the dentist for prophylactic gum work.
In my 35 years as a professional home remodeler, I've found that if I get clients to fold the health and safety solutions into the more enjoyable task of remodeling to suit their changing tastes, they are not only more responsive, but they're also excited and enthusiastic.
Later Might Be Too Late
Everyone has a mental checklist of things to change about his or her home. It could be the landscaping, the entry, the foyer decoration, the general feel of the public areas, the way the kitchen works or looks or how it relates to adjacent spaces. These are all good reasons to remodel. But a common mistake people make is forgetting to include aging-in-place details.
We’ve all heard (or had our own) horror stories of remodeling projects that take forever. The last thing you want to do is wait until a heath crisis strikes and it’s impossible to remodel properly, if at all. The complexity of the design process is incredibly time-consuming — and that’s before you even begin constructions.
Starting now gives you the luxury to research, interview and select a team to help you plan. This may include a design consultant, like an architect, interior designer and a contactor, with whom you feel comfortable. The decision team also helps select carpenters, plumbers, electricians plus any specialty workers needed to assure the job is done correctly.

This is important because you’re going to be seeing a lot of one another. Agreeing on aesthetics is not enough. Mutual respect, shared work ethics and a sense of humor are vital. These are the people who are going to translate your vision into drawings and specifications, so it’s essential that you understand and respect one another.
Once the drawings are completed, permits might be necessary. As the building economy and season heats up, securing approval may take longer than ever.
Depending on how ambitious your project is, this phase could take anywhere from six weeks to a year. Only after that is complete do you get down to the nitty-gritty. By now you might be chomping at the bit, but this is not the time to gloss over details. These are the things that will define the character of your home. Having the time to really consider floors, wall and window treatments, trim, cabinets, countertops, tiles, lighting and hardware can spell the difference between an adequate job and an awesome one.
(MORE: Home Repair: When NOT to Do It Yourself)
Aging in Place Remodeling Checklist
Below are 10 suggestions for updates that, when done thoughtfully, also confer age-in-place benefits. Not only are they good ideas but they’re smart investments. Each one will likely add lasting value to your home. If you have the money and ability, you can do them all at once, but many people prefer to do them sequentially, over a few years. This checklist works equally well for renovations and new constructions.
1. New lighting fixtures They can shed softer light, add a little drama and show your home off to advantage. In the kitchen and bath — as well as halls and stairways — you can install task lighting to brighten your work or walking area and to prevent falls. A world of new technology, including compact fluorescent and low-voltage LED lights, gives more options and makes a variety of effects possible.
2. Updated switching and controls Wireless electronic switches you can control from your smart phone or a bedside console make your home more comfortable now and down the road. Remote controls can illuminate dark hallways, reduce shadows, improve security and alter the mood with just a touch.
3. Shelves near entranceways Install these so you always have a place to put your keys, glasses, purse and groceries while coming and going. This can also become a central place to keep important things, should you find yourself often searching the house for glasses, keys and important papers.

You could also build a shelf outside the door, allowing you to pull out your keys without having to put bags on the ground. While you’re attending to doorways, consider covering entries to keep you protected from the elements, and focusing an outdoor light to shine on the keyhole. You can leave it on at night, install a motion- or light-activated sensor or use a wireless key fob to turn it on when needed.
4. A beautiful and functional kitchen Consider building a prep station with seating so parties and Thanksgiving do not mean sore feet. That lower counter helps younger people, like neighbors and grandchildren, feel included in the action. Get a new range with front burner controls so you don’t singe yourself. Splurge on a fancy new oven with a sideswing door so you don’t have to reach over the lower door to remove hot dishes.
5. A bathroom that feels like a spa A curbless shower makes the space feel bigger and eliminates barriers whether walking, wheeling or shuffling. Additional options to consider: programmable temperature controls that conserve water, multiple jet-spray locations to turn your shower into a masseuse, a handheld wand that lets you reach everywhere easily whether you are standing, sitting or helping. 
(MORE: Universal Design Products for Kitchen and Bath)
6. Sinks with sufficient knee space They can make all activities easier. You can use a stool to save energy while applying makeup or getting a close shave.
7. A home elevator This building trend can be pricey, but the luxury of not climbing stairs when you're tired may be worth it. An elevator is great for lifting furniture, luggage or heavy boxes upstairs or the laundry downstairs. And for people who can't manage stairs, it can be a lifesaver.
8. Sufficient storage space and space-saving designs Compared with the cost of big-ticket renovations and appliances, it’s a bargain to get your closets, shelves, drawers, pantry, and laundry and storage areas organized the way you want. This will save not only space but time and hassle but provides easier access should that become an issue down the road. 
9. Low-maintenance, green landscaping Get over grass! Grow edible foods, native species and easy-to-maintain trees, shrubs and perennial flowers and find ways to reduce your workload. Research species and techniques with lower demands for water and fertilizer. Consider raised beds and planting tables that minimize bending and allow you to sit or stand while you enjoy tending your plants. Smooth, firm paths make the look neater and allow you to roll plants, soil and tools all over the garden.
(MORE: Edible Front-Yard Gardening)
10. Open and bright space Now is the time to tear down some walls to create a more open floor plan — it’s a more modern look, it maximizes light plus it's better for maneuvering.
So stop compromising and create the home you’ve always wanted. You’ll be happier, safer, plus the investment you make so you can age in place will begin to pay off as soon as you make it. 

Louis Tenenbaum Louis Tenenbaum, a carpenter and former contractor, is one of the nation's leading speakers and consultants advocating aging in place. Read More
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