Sharon and Howard Johnson of Jacksonville, are both National Association of Home Builders Certified Aging-in-Place Specialists (CAPS). The Johnsons are also co-founders of Age-Friendly Innovators, Inc. Howard is the host of the AARP RVTV program, Age-Friendly Rogue Valley.
What inspired you to go into this line of work? I don’t think we see it as “work” so much as trying to fill a pressing need to assist the exploding demographic of older adults to remain at home as they age–either through thoughtful remodeling or by downsizing to new “age-friendly” construction.” A year ago, we assessed our own two-story Victorian home and quickly recognized it was not a living environment that would accommodate inevitable, age-related changes. As we explored possibilities, we realized our age peers also needed the kind of information that we were surfacing.
When should people start thinking about modifying their home to be more age-friendly? There is no magic age, but ideally people in their mid to late 50’s, or as they become “empty-nesters,” should be thinking about retirement options and what type of living situation they want later in life. If asked, no aging adult answers that question, “Oh I plan to live in a nursing home…” but if you do not plan thoughtfully, that may be exactly where you end up.
The first step is to get a good understanding of how “accessible and adaptable” your current home is—or could become. The fundamental questions are “Could someone with mobility issues (walker, wheelchair, etc.) function in the home environment or would ramps be required and would doors throughout the house need to be widened?” For a multi-story home, “Would an elevator or lift be needed?” “How easy to use and “age-friendly” is the bathroom?” “Does the home have the abundance of task, accent and ambient lighting needed for aging eyes?”
Will these modifications decrease the value of the home once it’s back on the market? In our view, the key to modification of a current home is to adapt it in a fashion that assures it’s usable for all ages and circumstances—the young mother with a child in a stroller, the teenager with a sports injury who is temporarily on crutches. The key phrase is “universal design,” and homes with these features are often more attractive and easier to live in for all ages. As illustration, a modification that allows wheelchair access could mean a wider front door or new and more beckoning entryway. It could mean installing bathroom grab bars that also function as towel racks. With so many baby boomers reaching retirement age, well-done modifications will not decrease the value of a home and may in fact increase value—perceived and real. In collaboration with AARP Oregon and local service providers, we are hosting a symposium in the spring to examine this issue more closely.
As an example of ‘value,” our first home to be certified as “lifelong housing” is 1,652 square feet, but feels more spacious. It has wide 36” doors, no-step entrances, levered door handles and aging-in-place bathroom and kitchen fixtures. Windows are larger and lower to the floor and outlets are higher—and there are more of them. In thinking about value, if you assess your home and find there is need for a major investment, such as an elevator or chair lift, it is unlikely that type of cost could be recovered upon sale. But many ‘age-friendly improvements” intuitively appeal to the exploding demographic of older adults. People making the decision whether to stay in an existing home and remodel it or purchase a new home with built-in adaptability need to weigh the economics of both options.
What are the areas people most frequently overlooked when buying a new home or remodeling with a plan to age in place? The list of things to consider is almost too long to detail. In Southern Oregon the Rogue Valley Council of Governments’ Senior and Disability Services has created a Lifelong Housing Certification standard that can be used for remodel or new construction. This standard covers exterior entrances, doorways, lighting, bathrooms, kitchens, etc. The standard checklist is four pages long and identifies 37 individual requirements for certification. This includes such things as minimum hallway width (36”), levered faucets and doors, etc. The list is available online at: www.rvcog.org then click on Lifelong Housing from the menu on the left. In addition to physical environment, technology plays a significant role in creating an easy-living environment. Features like thermostats that can be controlled remotely, lights that sense movement and go on automatically when someone enters a room and “well-being monitors” are just a few ways that technology can support age-friendly living.
How prevalent are “universal design” practices in homebuilding? Builders are becoming increasingly more receptive to universal design and many of the new homes built today have some of the basics such as wider doors and provisions for later installation of grab bars. Also the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) has a training program for Certified Aging-in-Place Specialists (CAPS) that educates builders and remodelers on what is needed and where universal design can be applied. We have both gone through the course and are certified as CAPS Specialists. Sharon is retired Oregon State University faculty and a preceptor for Southern Oregon University/Oregon Health Sciences University nursing students. With the involvement of these students, we are beta-testing an in-home assessment tool that evaluates your home environment and helps prioritize needed modifications.
Describe the aging-in-place assessment process [of consulting that you work through with your clients]. Our mission is to promote the concept of aging-in-place in a multitude of ways. We have the aging-in-place (CAPs) certification but are not currently consulting with homeowners deciding to remodel. On the NAHB website there is a searchable directory by state for CAPs remodelers and builders. Go to www.nahb.org then click on the tab “Find an Industry Professional” and then scroll down to the CAPs Directory.
We have recently launched a not-for-profit organization, Age-Friendly Innovators Inc., whose mission is the promotion of greater awareness of aging-in-place issues and challenges. It focuses on creative, innovative solutions that catalyze older adults toward healthier and more independent lives in a home of their own. One of the early projects is envisioned as the development of a mobile “Healthy Aging Institute,” a well-equipped van that could travel throughout communities bringing information on fall prevention and in-home safety, chronic disease self-management and point-of-care problem solving and referral.
What are the habits of someone who is aging gracefully in their community?
We believe the “art” of aging gracefully includes fully embracing the inevitable changes that occur with aging. Some research suggests that being able to “see your older self” ensures much-improved, later-in-life decision-making. A positive attitude is essential—we, long ago, decided to replace the “organ recital” of aging-body maladies with humor and positivism.
Research supports, and our personal experience has shown, continuous learning and staying involved in meaningful, socially-connecting activities is very important. In addition, recognizing the powerful role of daily physical activity and exercise combined with colorful, nutrient-dense eating are critical to “living well” to the end of your days.