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There’s no place like home, so make sure it is safe, comfortable

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday, September 22, 2019

There’s no place like home – and that goes for those in their bonus years as much as for any age group.

You would be excused if you thought differently.  After all, most news is about those longer in the tooth moving into age-homogeneous communities such as Heritage Harbor or Gardens of Annapolis – or to independent or assisted living in a continuing care retirement community such as Ginger Cove or Bay Woods.

Many of the rest, it would seem, are snowbirds or desert rats who live up north in the Spring and Summer and head to America’s South or Southwest sometime after Thanksgiving, remaining in the sun until they head back north in time for Easter.

However [spoiler alert], despite all the attention given to those made-for-grey lifestyles, in fact nearly nine-in-ten seniors age in place.  Some move down the street to downsize or – as they say today – minimize, but most strive to remain close to friends and neighbors and to familiar grocery stores, doctors, pharmacies, libraries, movie theaters, restaurants and other places that are part of their everyday lives. 

Or, they may move down the road or even across country to get closer to grandkids, but research shows around 90 percent will still live in a single-family dwelling, apartment or condo.

But there’s a wrinkle.  Aging in place safely requires age-proofing conventional living quarters – that is, making everyday living as convenient, flexible, adaptable, simple and safe as possible, all while remaining stylish.

However, achieving effective age-proofing is a little like getting medical care:  You end up having to go to a bunch of specialists who don’t talk to each other.

I was thinking about this last week when I noticed a new store in the Forest Plaza shopping center called Kitchen Design Center.  I wandered in, curious to see if age-proofing was part of their menu of offerings.

I quickly learned that Kitchen Design Center is a cooperative venture between Kitchen and Bath Creations owned by Noel Dalton with a kitchen and bath design company called Design Solutions, owned by Joni Zimmerman.

Both Dalton and Zimmerman have deep roots in this region, with a long list of clients and many years of doing business.

So, I asked, “What sparked your joining together in this venture?” 

Dalton said, “We’ve experienced enormous innovation in the design and outfitting of key activity centers in homes.  As a result, people today have many choices they didn’t have 5-10 years ago.  By linking customer or need-centered design to choices among many new appliances, fixtures and technologies, we can introduce new possibilities as people consider renovations or even new builds.”

When I asked them if any of these innovations were related to the greying of America, Zimmerman perked up, “Absolutely.  In fact, there’s an important trend in home building and renovation called “universal design” that integrates design, hardware and technology.”

That’s when Dalton and Zimmerman detailed all kinds of design changes both large and small that you can make today to age-proof your home – plus new technologies, such as voice-activated microwave ovens, smart refrigerators or motion sensors for activating water to rinse fruits and vegetables you are preparing for dinner.

Zimmerman explained, “As you age, a major fear is falling, the fastest way to land in a nursing home.  That’s why it’s important to eliminate as many falling hazards as possible – especially steps, curbs, thresholds and other obstacles that can trip you up.”

Some solutions: Add grab bars in your tub or shower to steady yourself – and a teak bench for resting or to prop up your legs while bathing.  Use non-skid materials for the floor.  Create a “wet room” style bathing area with a curbless, walk-in shower that can also take a wheelchair.  Lower door thresholds to angled wedges to ease movement between rooms – or eliminate thresholds altogether.

Dalton added. “You also lose dexterity.  Arthritic hands and fingers can make it harder to flick the light switch, pull knobs on kitchen or bathroom cabinets or adjust the faucet on the kitchen sink.  Back pain issues can inhibit bending over to put dishes in the dishwasher.  Stiff shoulders impede reaching to take table ware from a high cabinet or a hot dish from a microwave elevated above the stove, where the danger of a spill is huge.”

Dalton added, “And don’t forget, your strength declines so getting up from a seated position is both difficult and dangerous because it can lead to a fall or to the need for home-care assistance for this ADL (activity of daily living).  When 75 percent of those who live to be 65 will also live to be 85 and 40 percent will live to be 90, these issues of diminishing ability must be addressed.”

Ways to combat this: Use motion-activated lighting or backlit rocker switches which can be seen at night and turned on or off with the back of a hand or elbow.  Install easy-to-grasp D- or U-shaped pulls for hard-to-grasp round knobs.  Replace hot/cold faucets with a single-lever handle or motion sensors – and flow sensors that will keep water at 120 degrees or lower to avoid burns or scalding.

You can also raise the dishwasher by 12 inches, install wall cupboards and  adjustable-height counters lower by three to six inches, relocate the microwave in a lower cabinet drawer and use a raised or “comfort height” toilet (19 inches) for the bathroom – and perhaps a stand-assist or “lift chair” in the living room.

Zimmerman said, “Because we design these age-proofing elements to work together, they remain stylish and allow older Americans to remain safely in their homes where they can live independently or with a part- or full-time caregiver and still be close to long-time friends and neighbors and familiar places.”

Dalton and Zimmerman are on to something. Research shows that aging in place is made for grey.  So, it’s not surprising that the market is beginning to respond to the need for an integrated, user-friendly approach to age-proofing.  We can only hope the medical profession will take notice.

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