National News: Aging-in-Place Market a Bright Spot for Housing

Aging-in-place renovation work is expected to provide one of the bright spots for residential construction as the recession-battered industry eventually begins gaining ground, according to panelists at last month’s Remodeling Show in Baltimore. They also pointed out that communication with elderly home owners will be key to success in this segment of the marketplace, and that is why builders should consider teaming up with occupational therapists.

Members of the post-World War II baby boom are fast approaching traditional retirement years with the advantages of a longer life, more wealth and better education than previous generations, said Michael O’Neal, an urban sociologist with AARP, and surveys by his organization suggest that the great majority of this population will be looking for remodeling jobs that enable them to continue living in their existing homes.

By 2030, there will be more than 70 million Americans who are 65 and older, more than twice as many as today, O’Neal said. The first boomer turned 60 in 2006 and the last will turn 65 in 2039.

AARP polling has found that 84% of people who are 50 and older would prefer to reside in their existing home and within their existing community, said O’Neal. However, “only 16% have made modifications to be safe and comfortable in their home.”

Studies on mobility show that 90% of those who are 50+ stay put in their existing home, he said, and the 10% who do move tend not to go far from the area in which they have established roots.

‘A Tough Sell’

While the outlook for aging-in-place remains strong, Bill Owens, president of Owens Construction in Columbus, Ohio, noted that it “can be a phantom market.”

“It’s true,” Owens said of remodeling projects to gear existing homes to the needs of the elderly. “We know we need it, but it’s elusive because nobody wants to do it,” and boomers tend to have a feeling of “invincibility” when it comes to denying that they will eventually be affected by some of the physical and mental challenges that come with aging.

Aging-in-place can be “a tough sell,” he said, and builders need to emphasize great design opportunities. “You cannot sell cod liver oil,” he said. “Have your universal design glasses on all the time,” and if done right, universal design principles can be brought into the home unobtrusively.

The aging of the nation’s housing stock, with the average home now 33 years old, is conducive to “a mélange of home modification opportunities,” Owens said. Older home owners tend to live in two-story houses, with small bathrooms, narrow doors and small boxes “that are completely different from today’s open floor plans,” he said, none of which is particularly well-suited to accommodating the needs of aging residents.

Seniors in the 60-to-70 age bracket tend to be most receptive to the idea of remodeling so that they can continue to comfortably reside in their existing homes, he said, but that willingness begins to fade by age 70 to 75. Boomers, who will represent the majority opportunity for these jobs as they increasingly get older, are already key influencers, he said, in making decisions for their parents.

Persons of all ages and abilities can benefit from universal design, Owens said. “A home that has no barriers is the goal,” he added.

Working With Occupational Therapists

AARP’s O’Neal said that remodelers should understand that elderly home owners might not understand what a contractor is telling them when going through the house. This occurred when his father, who is hard of hearing, was in the process of getting a new roof.

“A remodeler won’t close the sale with someone who doesn’t really understand what the contractor is presenting,” said Carla Chase, assistant professor of Western Michigan University’s occupational therapy program and a representative of the American Occupational Therapy Association. But there can be much more that remodelers need to know about prospective clients who are elderly, and occupational therapists (OTs) can play an essential role in this process, she said.

OTs can help contractors determine what needs to be modified in the home by evaluating the client’s physical and emotional strengths and limitations as well as medical conditions that have an impact on how they function — often after an illness or injury — and what can be expected as they continue to age, said Chase.

“A person may claim not to need help in walking, but hand marks on the wall indicate otherwise,” she said. The OT asks, “What are they able and not able to do in their home?” Expanding the overview of the project, the OT also assesses anyone who is taking care of the resident of the home.

Chase said that OTs can weigh the course of medical conditions as they pertain to the livability of the client’s home. Some of these conditions can be short-term, some can happen suddenly and some progressively become worse.

Clients with multiple sclerosis, for example, will need increasingly more support five and 10 years down the road, she said, and when considering modifications to the home should be planning for the future. “They need to decide to go the extra step now,” she said.

OTs can help with such psychosocial aspects of the aging process as loss of control, which can be a difficult issue for a person who has defined their adult life as being the primary breadwinner and now sees that role changing. OTs can also help resolve other powerful issues that can cause multiple problems for the parties involved in the home modification process — such as privacy and fear of falling.

Aging clients often need support when it comes to overcoming reluctance to face the need for modifications to their home. It is helpful, Chase said, to begin by pointing out to the client steps they have already taken to make their home more livable — such as using nightlights or installing a non-skid surface in the shower. It is also good to have them recognize that modifications in the home will improve the comfort of visitors, such as grandchildren or an elderly sibling.

“You need to talk about the bad days with the client,” Chase added. “They may be feeling good the day the contractor comes in.”

Panelists recommended CAPS (Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist) training from NAHB for builders who are considering diversifying into the aging-in-place market.

The organizations represented on the panel have been working together to create consumer demand for remodelers who understand aging-in-place concepts; promote the benefits of partnering with occupational therapists to better meet the needs of home owners who want to age in place; learn how best to market aging in place remodeling to seniors; and emphasize the importance of customization in this market.

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