How To Age in a Unique Place with Universal Design for Retired Seniors

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virginia home for active adultsA gently sloped, semi-circle brick walkway provides an important and accurate first impression of a home that stands out from its neighbors. Well-kept ramblers line the streets of the well-established neighborhood in Arlington, VA where Rick Barry and Linda Cox built their very practical dream home. The wide walkway doubles as an accessible entryway and a parking area for large family gatherings and is the first introduction to the themes of dual purpose design and attention to detail that are carried throughout the custom home.

It is obvious before even entering the house that Barry and Cox gave a lot of thought to exactly how they wanted their new home to feel and function. What is not obvious is that they were not simply planning for their current needs and desires. Barry and Cox-young, active seniors-were planning for a future that for many of their peers is still inconceivable. From wide hallways and doorways to an office suite that can easily be converted to accommodate a live-in caregiver, the couple was looking forward to their needs in their 70s, 80s, and beyond.

The single-level home includes nearly 3,000 square feet of living space that is spacious and open. In addition to eliminating stairs, the design includes countless accommodations that make life easy for the homeowners now, and even more that will become essential as they age in place.

Doorways throughout the home are barrier-free. In the stylish master bathroom, grab bars function as attractive towel bars and the large wheelchair accessible shower includes a seat and non-slip tiles. All the electrical outlets were raised to 18 inches to eliminate the need for bending or crouching to access them. Lever door handles were used because they are easier to operate for those with decreased hand strength or arthritis. The kitchen has ample space for a wheelchair to navigate around the large center island, and built-ins will allow the couple to drop the sink to make it ADA compliant should that need arise.

Barry and Cox did not set out to build a home that would push the boundaries of contemporary design or serve as a template for others who wish to age in place. They were motivated by first-hand experiences with seniors and how they live.

In her career as a nurse, Cox has worked extensively with the geriatric population. She notes, “I have seen what happens when people do not plan ahead. They are forced to make decisions during an emergency, which is the worst possible time.” Experiences with former neighbors also influenced the couple’s decision to plan for the future. Barry explains, “We watched several of our older neighbors become virtual captives to one or two rooms in their multi-level homes.”

When they began the process of planning their barrier-free, accessible home, Barry and Cox were not aware of the principles of Universal Design or the corresponding emerging trends in home construction and remodeling. When they discovered Universal Design, they used some of the guidelines of the philosophy to fine-tune their plan. According to the Center for Universal Design at N.C. State University, “Universal design is an approach to the design of all products and environments to be as usable as possible by as many people as possible regardless of age, ability, or situation.” Following the principles of Universal Design existing homes are remodeled or new homes are constructed to make life easier for everyone-from the most to the least able occupants.

Barry and Cox’s builder, Chip Gruver of Gruver & Cooley Builders, was also new to Universal Design construction. He notes, “This project was a learning experience because there was no template. The objective was to create a custom home that smoothly integrated all of these accommodations for future needs.” For Gruver, this project highlighted the unique needs of an emerging niche market.

For years, local realtors and moving coordinators have been keenly aware of the needs of seniors and Baby Boomers who are searching for more adaptable living spaces and viable alternatives to assisted living communities. Brent DeRobertis and Bill Owen, Senior Real Estate Specialists with Coldwell Banker, are already exploring this budding market and helping clients to eliminate many of the challenges inherent in moving and downsizing.

Owen points out, “Our clients are faced with several choices as they age: modify their house as their needs change, build a new house, or move to a community.” DeRobertis adds, “Not enough builders are paying attention to this market segment-to people who are looking for homes where they can age in place.”

Custom builders have the tools to make aging in place a viable alternative. Barry notes, “The Gruver & Cooley team worked with us tirelessly to make sure this home met our expectations and stayed within our budget.” He goes on to point out that a home like theirs could have been completed with a much larger, or much smaller, budget depending on individual needs and desires.

Specially designed homes like Barry and Cox’s are making retirement living choices easier for individuals who want to remain in familiar neighborhoods or single-family homes but have no desire to leave the future to chance. In a carefully planned home, individuals can comfortably age in place.

Rick Barry and Linda Cox may have a rare foresight, but they are just two of an increasing number of individuals who are hand-crafting a retirement lifestyle that allows them to remain in their own home indefinitely-and safely. Downsizing and carefully planning a living space for their current and future needs certainly posed challenges, but today the couple enjoys entertaining their large family and wide circle of friends in their new home.

Pointing out the large great room from the back yard, Barry says, “We don’t call it the great room to be fancy. In our last house we had a library, a living room, and a recreation room. While we were planning this house, we said, ‘If all of those spaces are going to be condensed into one room, it is going to have to be a great room.'” The room is great; the house is one of a kind-but it might not be for long.

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