- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A rising number of aging Americans is encouraging a home-makeover industry designed to help them “age in place.”

Some remodelers are refocusing their services on older homeowners who find that walking up a flight of stairs on sore knees or turning a doorknob with arthritic hands is becoming a struggle.

“As one client told me, I want to leave this house boots first,” said Vince Butler, president of Butler Brothers Corp., a Clifton home-remodeling company.

In the five years since he became a “certified aging-in-place specialist,” customizing homes for elderly clients has grown to about 20 percent of his company’s business. It typically involves installation of wheelchair ramps, task lighting that illuminates specific work areas, and levers on faucets and door handles.

The National Association of Home Builders says aging in place is a growing part of the remodeling industry, generating $233 billion from American homeowners.

“I think the fact that the baby boomers are aging is going to fuel it,” said Mike Nagel, chairman of NAHB Remodelers, a division of the trade group. “As people become more dependent on accessibility, the need is going to rise.”

Only a few contractors are trained to know the special needs of the elderly, so the NAHB developed a certification program for aging-in-place specialists.

Since the program started in 2002, more than 1,000 architects, builders, home remodelers and others have taken the three-day course that describes the health problems of senior citizens and strategies for accommodating them.

“The main obstacle is people are not aware that the services exist,” said Kate Tulenko, co-owner of Living Solutions, an Alexandria consulting firm on making residences accessible for aging in place.

Ms. Tulenko worked as a doctor in Washington for three years before starting Living Solutions in 2004.

“Our business has probably gone up by 20 to 50 percent each year,” she said. “Part of it is demographics, the fact that the population is aging and people are living longer. The other factor is that our society itself is changing and people are no longer so interested in living with adult children.”

About 82 percent of senior citizens expect to stay in their current homes for the rest of their lives, according to a 2003 survey by AARP, an advocacy group for older Americans.

They want to remain in familiar surroundings near friends and family and to avoid becoming a burden on other people.

“I love this house and I’ve been in it for 60 years,” said Mary Ballenger, 87, a retired government secretary living in Forestville.

She suffers from macular degeneration, which means she is losing her eyesight.

“Being in your own surroundings, the refrigerator and stuff like that, I already know where they are and I haven’t had any problems,” she said.

Remodeling a home to accommodate special needs of the elderly can cost as little as a few thousand dollars for items such as extra lights, roll-out cabinets and grab bars in bathrooms.

By contrast, assisted living in the Washington area can take a large portion of an annual household income.

A private room in a Washington-area assisting-living facility costs an average $35,286 a year, according to a survey released last month by Genworth Financial, an investment advisory company.

The average household income for Washington families is $47,221 per year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Other accommodations, such as wider doorways for wheelchairs or elevators in multilevel homes, can be more expensive.

Diane and Dennis McCarthy estimate that $150,000 of their $324,000 remodeling bill last year was spent on aging-in-place features for their Vienna, Va., home.

The semi-retired astronomers added a master bedroom and bathroom on the first floor of their three-level home. They also replaced faucet knobs with levers, widened doorways, installed a sunken shower with wheelchair accessibility and set up lighting in cabinets.

“I know I have cataracts coming,” Mrs. McCarthy said. “I may never need surgery, but I’m aware I may need more light to see things.”

Neither of the 64-year-olds is disabled, but they are aware of the importance of special accommodations. Six years ago, Mr. McCarthy injured his foot in a fall from a stepladder, underwent three surgeries and was unable to walk for six months.

“That was one of the things that got us to thinking about this kind of thing,” Mrs. McCarthy said.

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