Planning for life.

Consider renovations that provide the best return on investment for your future, or future owners, in an aging population.

Most homeowners in their ‘30s don’t need grab bars near the toilet or enough space for a wheelchair to slip through the doorway, but that shouldn’t stop them from reinforcing their walls and widening their doorways.

Nova Scotia Home Builders Association CEO Sherry Donovan says homeowners across the province are realizing the benefits of renovating their home for people with mobility issues, whether it’s for themselves (now or down the road), their aging parents, or even a potential buyer when they eventually sell their home.

“People are looking at their homes differently, especially here in Nova Scotia where we’re extremely aware of our aging population,” says Donovan. “It’s not just seniors, either. We have various-aged homebuyers thinking ‘Will I have mobility issues down the line?’ or ‘Will my in-laws move in someday?’ and they’re also thinking about resale.”

Lawtons Home HealthCare business development manager Ron Swan says it’s all a matter of demographics, as the Baby Boomers are now in their ’60s and late ’50s.

“We want to live where we want to live, do what we want to do, and maintain our independence,” says Swan, 63. “Nobody is considering long-term care as an attractive option and people are living a lot longer than they used to, so we’re going to see this trend continue for the foreseeable future.”

Swan says seniors most commonly need to enter long-term care because they’ve suffered a bad fall, but there are ways to mitigate the risk so they’re able to return home safely. His 87-year-old mother lives in an apartment and Swan works with her landlord to make sure she has everything she needs for safe accessibility.

caps_bathroom

Grab bars are a common bathroom addition to make it easier to get on and off the toilet, as well as climb in and out of the tub. If you don’t need grab bars but you’re renovating your bathroom for other reasons, Donovan says it’s smart to reinforce the walls while you have the chance. Then it’s far easier – and less expensive – to add grab bars in the future when and if required.

If you’re considering knocking out a closet to make your bathroom a little larger, that might be an especially smart decision.

“You really want to make that bathroom as large as you can so there’s space if someone needs to go in with a walker or a wheelchair,” says Swan.


 


Many homeowners assume their only accessible option is removing their tub entirely and replacing it with a zero-threshold shower. This is a great option to consider, especially if showers are your preference. However there are many specialized bathtub models, either newly installed or available through retrofit, which provide a low-threshold, watertight doorway on the side of the tub.

If mobility issues still prevent someone from stepping into one of these specialized bathtubs, have no fear – Swan says there’s no age limit on relaxing in a bubble bath.

“We can put in bath lifts that can lower you into the tub and then bring you back up again, for people who enjoy the full experience of a bath,” says Swan.

He says these bathroom renovations can be so attractive that most people don’t even notice the accessibility features.

“They walk in and say ‘Wow, this is a really nice bathroom.’ It doesn’t have to look clinical at all,” says Swan.

The entries of most homes are not accessible for wheelchairs or walkers, so Swan says that’s where renovations can be essential. Installing a porch lift – a specialized exterior elevator – sounds like the far fancier option, but he says it’s often more practical than a ramp.

Since a ramp must be 12” long for every 1” of height in order to meet code requirements, a home with a door that’s 5’ off the ground would require a staggering 50’ ramp. Ramps require more maintenance and need to be shovelled all winter long, and they can also be an eyesore. Porch lifts can be discreetly tucked off to one side.

homesafe_elevatorInterior elevators are another option. Although far more expensive, these can be retrofitted into a home within a closet or other open space, opening into a garage or the somewhere near the front entry. Just like commercial elevators, you can incorporate a stop on each level of your home, providing access to all areas. Swan recently worked with a Bedford couple to renovate their two-storey home by adding a residential elevator with six stops to reach every level – including the basement and outside entrance.

“He and his wife are in their early ’80s and they don’t want to go anywhere else, so the elevator is going to allow them to stay there as long as they can,” says Swan.

While the elevator was a $100,000 project, Swan says there are less expensive upgrades that can make a huge difference to a person’s quality of life. Kitchens can be made more accessible by installing appliances with front-mounted controls and special cabinets that lower themselves to a person’s level. Raised outlets and lowered light switches are hugely helpful for people using wheelchairs.

As with any renovation project, Donovan says it’s critical to research a renovator’s credentials and get everything in writing.

“There’s a lot of money at stake when you’re renovating, and you’re putting a lot of trust into the renovator that they’re going to be able to meet your expectations,” says Donovan. “Unfortunately, there are always people out there looking to make money off others’ misfortunes.”

The CAPS (Certified Aging-in-Place Specialists) program was designed to give homeowners greater peace of mind in choosing a renovator. CAPS renovators understand the skills required to successfully renovate a home so a person can remain there comfortably into their golden years.

“These professionals have taken the time to better educate themselves on the needs of people with mobility issues,” says Donovan. “It’s another tool in their toolbox to better serve their client.”

She says a lot of builders and renovators without the CAPS certification may not consider againg- in-place options, as they’re simply not accustomed to thinking about designing for mobility-changed homeowners.


 


“With CAPS, they have that expertise to ask the homeowner ‘Have you considered wider doorways or additional lighting in the kitchen?’” says Donovan. “Or they might say ‘You don’t need grab bars in the bathroom yet, but we may want to reinforce that wall so it’s easy to add them in the future.”

Donovan notes that most homeowners tend not to think about these types of renovations until they suddenly find themselves – or a loved one – in desperate need of grab bars or wheelchair-accessible doorways. That’s why she encourages anyone renovating their home to keep an open mind when it comes to small or large changes that could save them a lot of money down the road.

“It’s much less expensive to do these things when the walls are already open,” says Donovan. “It’s also far easier to execute them, compared to when you’re suddenly in the hospital with an injury and can’t go home until the modifications are done to the home.”

When someone reaches out to discuss making a home more accessible, Swan says he arranges a consultation with the family so he can explain their options. If the renovations are for a person who needs them immediately, due to declining health or mobility, he loops in their healthcare provider and an occupational therapist.

“If their goal is to maintain their independence, they need to say ‘OK, where am I now? How could my needs change in the future?’” says Swan. “An occupational therapist can assess their ability to safely function in their home – physically and cognitively.”

Swan says an OT will sometimes ask the person to perform different tasks – like preparing a meal or going through their bathing routine – to see what modifications need to be made to the home.

“You need to spend that time getting a really good understanding of what your situation is up front and what it may be like two, three, four or five years down the road so you can make decisions based on that,” says Swan.

He says it can cost far more to support someone living in long-term care than it does to support them in their own home. Before rushing to put an aging parent into long-term care, he believes it’s important to think about all of the options.

“Some people in assisted living are paying $4,000 or $5,000 a month, and you can make your home fully accessible – and maybe bring in a caregiver a few days a week – for a fraction of that cost,” says Swan.

“Once they’ve had an assessment with an occupational therapist and you get an idea of the cost for the changes that would need to be made to the home, then you can make a decision based on the big picture.”


 


Heather Laura Clarke

Heather Laura Clarke

Heather Laura Clarke is a freelance journalist whose work regularly appears in many Atlantic Canadian newspapers and magazines, including The Chronicle Herald, Metro, Hub Now, Business Voice, Dugger's, Progress, East Coast Living, Bedford Magazine, and Southender Magazine. She also has several corporate clients.