- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2006

In the world of active adult communities, where housing is restricted to those households with members age 55 and older, there is a contradiction. The communities are marketed to youthful baby boomers who want to stay fit and stimulated by plenty of recreational and educational activities, yet they also are meant to provide a living environment for “aging in place,” with design elements to provide safety for less-mobile seniors.

As the baby boom generation ages, builders are paying more attention to the needs of elderly residents, incorporating “universal design elements” that can make a home more accessible for disabled or ill residents.

Building homes with wider doorways, lower light switches, lever-door handles, step-free entrances and grab bars in the bathroom can be safer for residents, but for many buyers these elements are psychologically unappealing.

“None of the baby boomers thinks they are aging,” says Debbie Rosenstein, president of Rosenstein Research Associates. “People have decided that 60 is the new 40, so no one wants to face the idea that as they get older they may need some of these features. Some buyers assume they will move into another location before they need universal design elements.”

Miss Rosenstein anticipates that during the next few years builders will begin marketing universal design in active adult communities, but that until now, “less is more” when it comes to promoting features that allow homeowners to age in place.

At Slenker Land Corp., developers of active adult communities under the Central Parke name, plans are in place to incorporate more universal design elements in homes that will be built in the future.

“We intend to make it part of the Central Parke brand that we will build homes which allow for aging in place,” says Bill Slenker, president of Slenker Land Corp.

“Although the average age of our buyers is 62, and 80 percent of our households are healthy couples, we are very cognizant of the need to prepare for the future,” Mr. Slenker says. “People are starting to realize that the average life span is one-third longer than it used to be, with the average woman living to age 85 and average man living to 82. Everyone needs to figure out how to accommodate that.”

In the Central Parke communities and all other active adult communities, every condominium, villa, town home and single-family home has a first-floor master bedroom to allow for one-level living, with some including a second floor for discretionary living space for guest bedrooms or storage.

While other design features, such as wider doorways and hallways, are included as standard features in most homes, other accessibility features are often available as options.

According to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) 2003 Builders Survey on Senior Housing, more than half of the builders nationally, 53 percent, said that some of their over-50 customers were resistant to accessibility features in a new home, and 7 percent of the builders said that most of their over-50 customers were resistant to accessibility features.

Some 55 percent of builders in age-restricted communities reported that some of their buyers were resistant to accessibility features, while another 8 percent said that most of their buyers were resistant to these features.

One reason for the resistance to aging-in-place features is that active adult buyers are younger. The NAHB Web site (www.nahb.org) reports that the average age of buyers in active adult communities has dropped from 67 to 61 in the past 10 years. This “self-image of these buyers excludes the concept of ‘senior,’” the NAHB reports. But at the same time, buyers want universal design features to be incorporated “with character to enhance appearance and functionality.”

At Slenker Land Corp.’s communities, the universal design elements are not part of the general marketing campaign, which focuses on recreation and is designed to appeal to 55-year-olds.

“Our ads focus on a more cheerful state of mind,” Mr. Slenker says, “but we do educate buyers that there may be a need for accessibility features in the future. We leave it to the builder to talk about these options, since it is more natural for them to talk about specific features of the homes.”

Brookfield Homes Corp., developers of both mixed-age and age-restricted communities in the Washington area, recently opened its Morton model at Dunbarton in Braemar, Va., priced from the mid-$300,000s.

This newly redesigned model includes an entry threshold without steps and two-toned hardwood flooring, which aids depth perception. Other features include lower, rocker-style light switches and higher electric outlets for easier access. Counter heights can be raised for less back strain.

While this model does not have grab bars in the bath, the towel bars have been reinforced to help someone who is falling and have been placed so that grab bars can be easily installed if they are desired.

All faucets have easily graspable handles and the doors have lever handles rather than knobs. Doorways have been widened to accommodate a wheelchair, the washer and dryer have been raised and the refrigerator has a roll-out freezer on the bottom.

Tom King, an architect with Devereaux & Associates and a project manager for Brookfield Homes on the Morton model and other homes, says, “We worked with Brookfield Homes to determine what was needed in the general shell of the house to allow for the possibility of accessibility features later.”

“In all these designs, we created open, flexible space on the first floor and thought about which first-floor rooms could be used for different purposes if you were not able to get to the second level,” Mr. King says. “For instance, what starts as a dining room can become an office, or a study can become a bedroom.”

Mr. King designed the Morton to be as appealing as other model homes, with as many windows as possible for natural light.

“About the only place that the Morton is different from most of the other homes at Dunbarton is that the bathroom is larger for turn-around space, so we had to make the library a little bit smaller,” Mr. King says.

“We were careful to design this home and the others at Dunbarton with some separation of the master suite from the rest of the first-floor rooms because people like to have privacy,” he says. “We keep the master bedroom away from the family room and the kitchen, the most active areas of the home, and then add a small vestibule area.”

Choosing which features to add for aging in place can be complicated by what seniors think they may need in the future and which features are less costly.

The 2005 Senior Sentiment Survey conducted by Financial Freedom, a reverse mortgage lender, reports that the majority of seniors (81 percent) believe their current home is appropriate for aging in place.

Among those who felt that their home might need some modification, 42 percent felt that adding a shower stall or seat is the most important change, followed by adding grab bars and walking ramps. Less-expensive modifications done by some seniors on their homes include adding programmable thermostats, light switches that glow in the dark, easy-to-grab knobs and drawer pulls and levered door handles.

In the Central Parke active adult communities, architectural changes will be made to accommodate aging in place.

“Within five years we will have designed every lot in our developments with a wider garage so that people can get in and out of a car or van with a wheelchair,” Mr. Slenker says. “We will have at least one stepless entry in every home. In the bathrooms the walls will be cemented so that grab bars can be added. Additional baseboard heating will be added to the homes, because most of them are built on slabs and need extra heating to keep them warm enough in winter.”

At the Central Parke communities, the homes will be designed with more windows and higher intensity lighting.

“As you age, your acuity to perceive light goes down, and it can be especially difficult to see in the dark,” Mr. Slenker says. “Both natural light and stronger electrical lights provides a comfort level and a psychological impact which add to the quality of life.”

While many universal design features are inexpensive and unobtrusive, some add significantly to the cost of a home.

“Creating a stepless entry into a home can be costly because it depends on the topography of the community,” Mr. Slenker says.

Mr. King says changing the placement of light switches and outlets does not add any cost to a project, and using rocker switches as opposed to standard switches involves only a small cost per house.

Even adding wider doorways to the original design of a home adds very little cost. The most costly feature is somewhat surprising.

“What costs almost the most is placing the master suite on the first floor, because of the land expense,” Mr. King says. “It can be difficult to build a smaller, affordable house with a first-floor master suite and enough living space on the main level.”

Designing a home that can take residents from their active early retirement years into later years when they may experience less mobility is a challenge builders face in both active adult communities and mixed-age developments. In addition, builders must decide how much reality their buyers are willing to face when marketing homes with universal design features.

“In a few years, I predict it will be a positive factor for resale homes if they have universal design elements,” Miss Rosenstein says, “but right now, no one wants it in their face that they are an older buyer. No one wants to be confronted with their potential frailty.”

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