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Aging in Place, Part 5: Reaching Compromise with Concerns

aging in placeJamie PurnellComment

Resilience in Aging - A Memory of Chester Grady

Visit the historic  Grady Machine Shop  in Maine

Visit the historic Grady Machine Shop in Maine

For not quite three years we lived in Belfast, Maine.  While there, we lived on the same street as a centenarian named Chester (Chet) Grady and while our road had been renamed officially by the town, it was informally and more popularly knows as "Chester Grady Road" by locals. By the time we met Chester, he was within months of the end of his life. He had a bed set up in the corner of the main room but prior to this very short time in the front room, he'd been climbing the stairs to the same bedroom where he was born (!!!) every night. I found this brief meeting remarkable and it left an impression on me. 

I mention Mr. Grady because his story is unique and interesting but also because it sets the stage for the penultimate blog entry in this Aging in Place series. I'm going to broach the topic of reaching a compromise with our concerns (and fears) about aging. While I've been writing this series, I have wanted to focus not on "disaster" planning, but on an empowering and aesthetic approach to design that encourages us to build homes that we have relationship with; we want our homes to support us in sickness and in health, hopefully, as was the case for Chet Grady, till death do us part!  At the same time, I don't want to leave the impression that all design considerations allowing aging in place have to concurrently assume that our lives will necessarily contain infirmity - rather that what comes, we will be able to handle, with our homes.

Approaching Health Concerns Realistically

Accidents are just that. They happen out of the blue, infrequently, and with surprising outcomes. I generally don't think twice about walking to the grocery store even though I could be run over by a car along the way. It's not something I expect to happen, which doesn't mean it couldn't happen. And as a result, I walk on the correct side of the road, wear appropriate attire to the light conditions, and stay mindful of the cars approaching me in case they appear to be inattentive. In other words, I take active, rational steps to walk safely and thus don't fear overmuch for my safety on the road. Even so, I know accidents can happen.

Planning to build with aging in place in mind should be a hedge and a thought provoking process that does not assume sickness ahead but embraces that change of varying sorts will enter into all of our lives. One thinking about a home shouldn't feel that they can't pursue design as they want it - planning to live our lives fully in a home we love doesn't mean having to set aside certain features, but to consider features fully and evaluate whether they will provide lasting rewards. If you experience health issues now, you're probably not keen to build a home that has a lot of structure in it that poses difficulty (why put a grand staircase in a home if you are currently using a wheelchair?). But if your situation is quite the opposite, you might even view stairs as a part of your daily health routine and want to keep them incorporated for sure. Even in this situation, you might consider ways that the stairs will not make your home uninhabitable should a very serious injury or illness change your circumstances. Another approach, of course, would be to think about whether your lifestyle is one that minimizes future risk for the most part. While we can't prevent every accident, we can do a lot to reduce the likelihood of their happening. And we can do that with our health, to a large degree, as well by eating well, getting regular exercise, etc. 

Summarizing - The Balanced Approach

To briefly summarize, if you want to live in your home "forever" it's important to give due thought to changes that might occur in life. Certainly, we will all age and notice those effects. But consider carefully how to approach the process. Design strives to reflect the character of those living in the space - and that applies whether you are considering yourself in the present or the future. Thoughtful touches can make a big difference in terms of long term viability, but also keep in mind that it makes little sense to build a house that you find unappealing aesthetically because you fear a life with mobility issues that may never materialize. Balance is key.

I've tried to approach this series from a perspective that enables a view of design and the intention to live a long time in the same place as an enjoyable process of discovery rather than one that focuses on scary possibilities and creates a sense of fear. I hope this comes through!  

Designing for Aging in Place: A Multi Part Blog Series

Design Philosophy, aging in placeJamie PurnellComment

Aging in Place for All Ages

There is an old Chinese adage that states, "Build the well before you are thirsty." It seems highly applicable to design and building. 

In the next few blog entries I'll be exploring the concept and some design ideas relating to aging in place. I guess that's partly because I'm ready and looking forward to staying put for a while. We're not young and we're not old either. What we are is getting ready to embark on our final homebuilding project (at least for a long long while) so it's on my mind. We want to build the right way for our needs, so that we can stay in our home for a long long time, incorporating needed and wished for spaces along with care and thought that will make the home comfortable for us potentially until we reach a great age. Here are some of the topics I'll explore, frequently using my own experiences as examples.  I hope that despite including my own experience as a reference point you'll easily be able to substitute yourself and your own inclinations along the way. If you want more or find a particular area of interest, check back in to future entries for a more fully fleshed out exploration. In the meantime, just kick back and ask yourself, "If I go to the trouble and expense of designing my dream home, what features would I include to make it a home I can enjoy for many decades to come?"

Long Term Affordability

Can your home be designed so that it also "pays for itself?"  For our next build, we want to incorporate some sort of structure in the design that will allow us to rent a fully separate part of our home out if we so choose. This will help with taxes, have the potential to generate income, and will provide space for visitors. Having an easy to care for unit that provides a little income potential will help us stay in our home, even if taxes continue to increase and we choose to retire someday, or if we weren't able to work any longer in our chosen field.  Not only that, if we ever needed medical care from someone skilled, they could even have a place to stay (we live in a geographically complicated location).

Designing for changes in physical capacities. 

Small Barrier Free Shower.jpg

Barrier Free Shower

Though not large, the 840 square foot Itacha Modern house we built offers a European style bathroom wet room with a curbless walk-in shower!

It's now easy to design classy and sleek kitchens and baths that are also fully accessible (this is also sometimes referred to as barrier free design). Check out the slick bathroom styles you can choose from at http://trendingaccessibility.com - all barrier free if you choose to make them so.  When we designed our last build, Ithaca Modern, which we finished earlier this year, we included a European style wet-room that has a curbless shower. Not only is it barrier free - it's easy to clean!

Kitchens, when you are designing your own home, are well worth doing some thinking about, and when you start from scratch, you get to make the rules. It's worth considering how to include options for an unknown future along with the appliances you've always dreamt of. They can mesh, I'm convinced.

Right sizing your house design. 

Health and mobility issues aside, what features should you include to make the house viable for your long term needs? This part of design is huge for aging in place without regrets! For us, it means spending enough time on the issue of right sizing. I'll use some of our concerns as examples. The bigger it is, the more maintenance costs involved both in time and money. Plus, we're minimalists by nature and don't want a huge house full of stuff. However, building too small could also land us on Rue Street (French 101 pun, sorry) - wishing we'd made enough space for things we really value and need. For example, we live in the usually wet and not too warm (but otherwise fairly wonderful) Pacific Northwest. For a couple of activity lovers, this leaves us valuing a space to work out indoors enough to include it in our design. 

Reaching a compromise with concerns. 

Again using ourselves as an example: Our building lot precludes building a one story house both dimensionally and in having a lovely view made even better with a second story. We don't anticipate losing our mobility - and take steps to maintain health. While we want to hedge our bets in designing for the long term, we can't hedge them all. We're okay with this, and with potentially needing to do some retrofitting down the road. I guess my point is, this isn't disaster planning - or at least, not strictly so. Nothing in thoughtful preparation has to preclude designing to your preconceived desires. Include what you want and at the same time spend a little time considering how it would feel to have to leave your home. Maybe there are some things you can include to make that a much less likely possibility, even if something rotten and unexpected happens to you.

The nitty gritty aspects of ADA specifications.

A ramp might be a less common need for aging in place but keeping entries wide and accessible without a lot of stairs could be useful. This is from an ADA approved plan we designed for some clients in our home town.

It's a little daunting to read the requirements that commercial buildings need to adhere to to meet these standards - check it out here if you don't believe me. You don't have to meet every one of these standards for your own build, but it's useful to know things like minimum width for making a full turn in a wheelchair in a kitchen or bathroom, for example, or having some information about accessible hallway and door widths or window and counter top heights that assist in barrier free living. A little information can assist and even foster design tremendously.

So what's next?

There is an old Chinese adage that states, "Build the well before you are thirsty." It seems highly applicable to design and building. Building a home that will accommodate you and your needs for the long term is great planning from a financial point of view at any age. You could just as easily employ this thinking when considering expanding your family as you could when downsizing at retirement age for example. This kind of thinking is one of the base layers of the Aging in Place approach to building. 

Imagine if your home allowed you to experience a major health setback, whether it were a temporary loss of mobility or something long term like a stroke or complications from an illness, and not have to spend days or weeks in a hospital or rehabilitation setting. How about the potentiality for assisted living from the privacy of your own home?  Certainly, an approach like this could save a lot of money in very short order, especially if a group setting doesn't appeal to you. Planning for aging in place can be as simple as including a first floor bedroom or as involved as planning for a fully barrier free home. You can be in any decade of your life and benefit from incorporating just a little of the thinking behind building for aging in place. Here are some common things to consider:

  • How many bedrooms will you need? 
  • Do you plan on having kids?
  • Is there a passion in your life that could likely become a home based business? 

As a quick thought exercise, Do you think at this point in time you could design a home that will last you all the way through your end? I'm not sure I could, but it's worth considering. 

I hope you'll stay tuned and enjoy some of my upcoming blog entries. If you have comments or suggestions, experiences or things especially on your priority list, I hope you'll share by sending me an email or leaving a comment below.