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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, March 25, 2006

A retirement house has special needs

By Noelle Knox
USA Today

You're spending more and more time daydreaming about retiring. You sigh, envisioning the perfect retirement house.

Whether you plan to blow your kids' inheritance to buy a beach house in Florida, or just stay put, it's important to remember this: You'll grow old in that house.

The money you spend to build, remodel or retrofit your home for day-to-day retirement living can pay off. It'll make it easier to get around, perhaps sparing injuries and expensive nursing homes.

The oldest baby boomers turn 60 this year. They and their children must face the sobering fact that 35 percent of adults 65 and older have difficulty performing one or more self-care activities, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Those design features and furniture that seemed so chic when you were 40 could become hazards when you're 70 with a new left hip.

About one in five homeowners 65 and older spent money on a remodeling project in 2003, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University. They shelled out about $4,800, on average.

"The just-past-65 (group) is very healthy and wealthy," says Amal Bendimerad, a researcher at the center. "They're really able to do a lot more discretionary work dream-home projects than other generations" of retirees.

Retrofitting your home for your retirement years doesn't have to cost too much. Here are some points to keep in mind:

STAIRS

"A lot of the housing stock being built are McMansions, and they have lots of square footage and lots of little changes of levels," says Maggie Calkins, president of Ideas Inc. in Ohio, who has spent her career studying environments for the aging.

"All of those little changes of level become increasingly difficult if you're looking for a place you can stay in until the end.

"It would be lovely if you were able to get around independently until the day before you die, but that's not the reality for a lot of people. Having whole sections of the house you can't easily access is not planning well ahead."

For the exterior of the house, it's best to have no steps. But one step is OK, Calkins says, because you can easily add a wheelchair ramp.

Inside, you should have a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and laundry on the same level and leave the upstairs for guest bedrooms. Well-placed railings and contrasting color of carpet on the landing can also be great investments.

BATHROOM

"We found bathing needs one of the most pressing needs of older people," says Laura Gitlin, director of the Center for Applied Research on Aging and Health at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.

For less than $500, Gitlin says, most people can make changes to their bathroom to make it safer.

The most important items she recommends are grab bars, handheld showerheads, raised toilet seats and nonskid mats.

If you're remodeling your bathroom, it's also important to think about other factors: the height of the bathtub, a countertop with rounded edges (instead of sharp corners), toggle light switches, lever doorknobs. Maybe the doorway needs to be widened to 36 inches, for a walker or wheelchair.

If you want a tile floor, choose small tiles instead of large (for a better grip surface). And don't put a white toilet against a white floor, or a dark toilet against a dark floor, says Jeffrey Anderzhon, chairman of the American Institute of Architects' design for aging committee.

"With the diminishing of eyesight, you need to make sure there are contrasts in colors and finishes in the home," he says. "Statistics prove that falls (by the) elderly are not only very dangerous but often lead to death."

KITCHEN

In this room, think height and light.

"As you age, you need to get that microwave on the countertop, not above the range, especially for women with osteoporosis," Anderzhon recommends.

"If you put a bowl of hot soup in the microwave and reach up to take it out ... "

Choose a refrigerator-freezer with side-by-side doors, so everything you use regularly can be placed at midshelf range. Dishwashers with a drawer-design are easier to load and unload.

If you're doing a major remodel, have the upper cabinets installed a little lower so you can get into them without having to use a step stool.

Traditionally, cabinets are positioned 1 1/2 feet above the countertops.

But that's often too high for elderly women.

Calkins of Ideas Inc. adds: "It's very useful to have a section of the countertop that is lower than the normal 36 inches.

"It's better to have a section at 30 inches, because as you get older, it gets harder to raise your arms and shoulders to do things higher up."

Good lighting in the kitchen and in other work areas is also vital for elderly people.

"Lighting in an ideal house provides good general ambient light," Calkins explains.

Ceiling fixtures should have at least two or three bulbs of 60 to 75 watts.

Task lighting, next to chairs, should be 100 watts and high enough to shine directly onto your book or project.

In the kitchen, under-cabinet lighting is best.

OTHER TIPS

Arrange your furniture so you can get around it in the dark. Have outlets installed a little higher so you don't have to bend as far.

To imagine what it's like to turn on a light or open a door with arthritis, Anderzhon suggests putting a rubber band around four fingers, right above the knuckle. Also, put hard beans in your shoes and try walking. Put yellow cellophane over your eyes to visualize how your eyesight will start to fade.

The exterior of the house should be fairly maintenance free. Consider vinyl or aluminum siding and vinyl-trimmed windows that don't need frequent painting.

"As you age, it becomes more and more difficult to maintain the grounds of a home," Anderzhon says.

"Think about what it is you're planting. Reduce the amount of grass that needs to be mowed, and increase the amount of ornamental shrubs that take less or zero maintenance."

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