- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 19, 2003

Karen and Jack Newman are bona fide members of the so-called senior population, but they do not think of themselves as old or elderly. The extensive renovations they have made to their home on Overlook Lane NW were meant to improve what Mrs. Newman calls their "comfort level" rather than to accommodate their age.
However, the many design elements in place definitely represent a plan for long-term livability. They put the Newmans at the leading edge of a movement meant to help people fit their homes to their age.
The Newmans decided more than seven years ago that they wanted to make this house their ninth their last when they moved back into the city from a four-story condominium on the water in Annapolis. Mrs. Newman, 69, no longer has to be the entertaining wife of a high-powered lawyer; Mr. Newman, 70, although formally retired in December, works as lobbyist for an energy firm.
"From day one, I knew it was the opportunity of a lifetime," Mrs. Newman says. They pored over magazines and changed their minds "every 20 minutes," having "all kinds of health aspects in mind." Even so, Mrs. Newman notes, "No one ever gets old, anymore, if you are one of the fortunate few whose mind lasts."
The result is a cheerful, open-styled three-story dwelling designed so the couple can reside entirely on the first floor, if need be. ("I'm Californian," Mrs. Newman says by way of explaining the pastel colors and many windows throughout.)
One unusual feature is an elevator that services all three floors the main floor, a lower library den and family guest quarters upstairs.
Other features include industrial carpeting everywhere, including bathrooms, to inhibit falls; a large, glass-doored, roll-in shower that can accommodate a wheelchair, if need be; automatic-flush toilets installed at above-average height; kitchen counters that are higher than usual and cabinets that are slightly lower, for easy access; doorways wide enough for wheelchairs, should they ever be needed; and double railings on staircases. Mrs. Newman says she needs the rails when her arthritis bothers her on a climb.
"Twenty steps to the coffee maker, that's what it's all about," she jokes.
Two leather recliner chairs ("comfort chairs," she calls them) are positioned between the wall TV and the kitchen island. Nearly all furniture and woodwork edges are rounded. Also a definite plus for late night hours, Mrs. Newman says the master bedroom has remote controls for the lights, wall-screen TV and gas fireplace, and the twin beds, placed close together, can be raised or lowered separately at a whim.

The Newmans are fortunate in being able to afford to make changes while they are still relatively healthy and before they are faced with choosing living arrangements based completely on disablement or physical decline.
They have done so at a time when the building and design industries are beginning to focus hard on the demographics of a changing population, aware that the numbers of people having to make domestic adjustments because of age are growing.
In the not too distant future, the current generation of baby boomers likely will be turning in sport utility vehicles for a less mobile lifestyle.
"Baby boomers will have a few more demands than the older generation," predicts Charlotte Wade, a gerontologist who does research for the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). "We have a different mind-set about getting services, and we have money and can afford to modify homes if we choose to."
The NAHB Research Center created in December what it calls a LifeWise Home in Bowie that is meant to be a model environment for people who want to stay in their homes as they age. The NAHB calls it "energy-efficient, low-maintenance and accessible" for older or disabled homeowners.

Elder housing is a fast-growing field bursting with studies and specialists offering help to people who might see their choice as between renovating their own home or moving into a retirement community.
The consumer niche was termed "handicapitalism" in a 1999 Wall Street Journal article. The subject has prompted a number of groups in the public sector, such as Atlanta's Community Housing Resource Center, to target municipal zoning practices with seniors in mind.
A survey by AARP showed that 84 percent of Americans 45 year old and older would prefer to stay in their own homes as they age if they can rather than go to a public or private residential community. AARP has taken the lead in showing how best to adapt existing homes on a well-illustrated Web-site section detailing universal design home modification.
Local consultants in the field include Lewis Tenenbaum of Potomac, a former contractor who calls himself an "independent-living strategist" helping people without involving himself in the actual building or remodeling. Interior designers include Irma Dobkin of Chevy Chase, whose card reads "aging-in-place specialist." Both have sized up the market well.
In 1999, Ms. Dobkin teamed up with designer Mary Jo Peterson to write a book called "Universal Interiors by Design: Gracious Spaces" (McGraw-Hill). It illustrates the many ways houses can be adapted safely and attractively for what she calls life changes geared primarily to people's changing physical needs.
"I wanted to show people in the design community that there is no one way to solve the problem," says Ms. Dobkin, who frequently lectures on the subject "Designing to an Emerging Market."
Homes adapted for this purpose don't have to look like institutions, she points out.
"Seeing a ramp in front of a house can destroy its appearance," she notes. "It's important to consider an inclined walk as something that has to be built into the landscaping. It's worth spending the five or six thousand dollars. You don't put a wood ramp on a brick house with no relationship to the motifs of the existing house."
"People don't change their interests and their home just because of changes in their health," Mr. Tenenbaum says. "Staying at home doesn't mean changing their habits. The line from independence to assistance is a continuum. We want to find how to alleviate or mitigate barriers to their staying at home.
"Homes need to be prepared for a wider variation in the population," he says. "The issues are, how do you get in and out of your home and in and out of all the rooms safely and comfortably on your worst day. It isn't an endgame scenario, but a cyclical one. You don't know if in one week or a decade you will have a health change that requires assistance."

Nomenclature in the field is in some dispute, as Ms. Dobkin and others realized long ago. That explains, in part, the emergence of the term "universal design" instead of "handicapped accessibility" to describe the challenge of adapting domestic environments for special needs.
Even the word "senior" not to mention "elder" is looked down on by many seniors, says Leslie Marks, executive director of the NAHB's National Council on Seniors Housing, whose job is working with builders.
"We call it lifestyle housing, but we are trying very hard to change it," she says. "It is a turn-off, even to builders, which is why I say '50-plus retirement people.'"
At Riderwood Village in Montgomery County, a 140-acre community of about 900 retirees who are mostly independent, the name for an on-site facility for the temporarily indisposed needing medical assistance is Renaissance Garden. Other institutions use the words "transition care" or "continuing care for the dependent needy."
"I see builders doing things like bigger doorways and hallways," Ms. Marks notes. "They look good, and they don't say 'old' but are good style and design. And they are using some products that are particularly good for this age group without marketing them in a category products such as oven ranges that have the controls in front, whereas [on] ranges for families, [controls] are at the back so kids can't play with them."
"ElderHouse: Planning Your Best Home Ever" by Adelaide Altman, 76, examines a six-room house, starting with the entry and ending up in the garden, offering numerous practical suggestions along the way. The book is just out from Chelsea Green publishers.
"A lot of elderly people complain they have no place to work sitting down," she says on the telephone from her home in Florida, where she has just swum a half mile. "An inexpensive kitchen feature is removing doors from a kitchen sink and replacing them with folding doors or a simple curtain. Or you can cover drawers in a low cabinet and make work space."
"What is good for one person or family is not for another," cautions Ms. Wade, who notes that many grab bars are installed for average sizes and can be a problem for taller or shorter people but builders are becoming more aware, she believes.
"It's now becoming more common to use lever door handles instead of knobs. This way, if you have limited mobility, you open things more easily with a loosely closed fist."


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