Aging in place, aging with grace


Longevity, happiness and money saved are probably not the first things that come to mind when thinking of aging-in-place home modifications like grab bars, ramps and wider doorways, but Mark Johnson of Mark Johnson Custom Homes said they should be.

“If you stay in your home, you’ll live for an average of three years longer, you’ll be happier and you’ll have more money to pass down to your inheritance,” Johnson said.

Johnson and his wife Meredith were recently designated Certified Aging-in-Place Specialists through the National Association of Home Builders. Johnson said he knew the technical side of aging-in-place remodels through work his company performs, but he wanted to move past the negative perception to show people how the changes can improve their lives. 

“It makes financial sense and you’re going to live longer, and that’s cool. That’s why we’re trying to get past the wider doorways and the handicap bars, because those things will come and that will be part of the decision, but it really comes down to living longer, being happier and having more money,” Johnson said.

Cameron Moore, executive officer of the Wilmington-Cape Fear Home Builders Association, said aging in place may be achieved gracefully with the right strategy and planning.

“There is no need for accessible home improvements to ever look or feel institutional in any form or fashion. … These days modifying your home to accommodate aging in place does not mean your home has to look like a hospital room,” Moore said.

Moore said one way to assure the process unfolds gracefully is to contact a Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist like Johnson, who is taught to fuse innovative design with craftsmanship to ensure renovations reflect the taste of the homeowners. 

Specialists rely on universal design elements like level floors, wide hallways and doorways, added lighting and open living spaces to ensure a space is accessible and usable by all, while remaining visually appealing. 

Whit Honeycutt, of North State Custom Builders, is another Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist operating in Wilmington. He said small changes like higher electrical outlets and lower light switches can make a big difference.

“It’s little things, really, that are difficult for people if they should be in a wheelchair, or have chronic back pain, or whatever the things are that make living in their homes a difficult thing,” Honeycutt said.

Honeycutt said most in-home injuries for aging adults result from slipping while getting in or out of the bathtub or shower. One appealing solution is a zero-threshold, or walk-in, shower with a bench or stool, which can be enjoyed regardless of mobility. 

Noting that many clients do not want grab bars in their bathroom until they are needed, Honeycutt said he puts blocking behind sheet rock or tile in new bathrooms so the bars can be quickly and easily installed when needed. When the time comes to install the bars, Wilmington-based Next Day Access offers grab bars that look like towel racks, soap dishes, even toilet paper dispensers. 

The kitchen also requires more attention. An open layout with rollout shelves, knobs instead of handles on cabinets and drawers, lower countertops and a shallow sink are best for homeowners with limited mobility. Johnson said the shallow sink is the only feature that could bother someone with a full range of mobility. 

Often, aging-in-place remodels address more than making a home wheelchair — or walker — accessible. Changes can also accommodate a decline in visual, hearing or mental faculties with appliances that turn off after so long in use, anti-scald measures in faucets, motion-detecting sensors for lights, and hinges in doors and cabinets that fully open and close with minimal effort. 

Noticing a trend in new construction and remodels to tastefully and unassumingly facilitate aging in place, the Wilmington homebuilders association organized an expo in 2013 to help dispel any mystery or stigma among the growing demographic of aging homeowners. The free event was not limited to real estate and remodels. The expo included exhibits and seminars on financial planning, health and wellness, leisure and lifestyles and more, pulling in almost 1,300 visitors in its first year. 

“We already have a large demographic of active older adults in our community, which in turn drives the need to incorporate different strategies when it comes to residential construction practices. The 50+ Coastal Lifestyles Expo creates a great portal for our members to showcase to families the many different products and services available to them in the Wilmington area,” Moore said. 

The second annual 50+ Coastal Lifestyles Expo is presented by the Wilmington-Cape Fear Home Builders Association and Better Living magazine. It will take place Aug. 1 at the Wilmington Convention Center from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.



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