Aging in Place: Lifelong Comfort in Your Own Home

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There is more to aging-in-place design than meets the eye.

aging in place home
Note the zero-step entrance out to the pool at this Hillsborough farmhouse by Chad Collins of Collins Design-Build.

By Morgan Cartier Weston | Photography courtesy of Collins Design-Build Inc.

Kevin Gerber of Bud Matthews Services has been remodeling homes for more than 30 years, but over the past seven years or so, he has seen an uptick in requests for designs that emphasize aging in place. Kevin says that one of the more common misconceptions he hears is that adding safety features will detract from a home’s design; in fact, his favorite part of his job is being able to make areas of a client’s home safe and comfortable for their use without sacrificing style.

Bud Matthews clients Robert Van Kirk and Michelle Maillot moved to Chapel Hill three years ago from New Bern to be closer to their daughter in Raleigh and son in Atlanta. “This is a wonderful town with many things to occupy the body and mind,” Robert says. They were attracted to Governors Club, both for its proximity to shops and doctor’s offices as well as the sense of community they feel among their neighbors. 

Their two-story, 3,200-square-foot home is ideal for when their children and grandchildren visit, but it was lacking in safety features Robert and Michelle needed. The owner’s bathroom and closet were also dated and did not efficiently utilize the space. “We completely remodeled our main bathroom, taking everything down to the studs and subfloor,” Robert says. 

Within the existing footprint, Robert and Michelle were able to double the size of their closet and maximize their bathroom space, trading a jetted tub, small shower and walls of mirrors for a low-step shower with grab bars and both a high and a handheld shower head. The couple also added a separate toilet room with a grab bar. “There are endless products and design possibilities,” Kevin adds. “You do not have to forgo style.” 

“Our experience remodeling the bathroom with the Bud Matthews team was excellent,” Robert adds. “We have hired them to do more maintenance work, including installing a new water heater along with some electrical and plumbing repairs.” 

aging in place shower
The Hillsborough farmhouse has zero-step entrances into the showers.

THE BEST THEY COULD HOPE FOR 

For Nora Spencer and her team at Hope Renovations, aging-in-place renovations are a labor of love. The nonprofit provides 12-week trade training programs to teach underemployed women construction skills. Their hands-on training is designed to not only provide the women with vital job experience, it also creates solutions for local seniors who wish to remain in their homes safely and comfortably as they age. 

“When I created the model for Hope Renovations, I planned from the start that we would have a focus on aging-in-place clients because I knew that a good training program needed an on-the-job experience component,” Nora says. “Although this type of work is one of the fastest growing segments in our industry, there aren’t nearly enough contractors doing it, so it was a win-win to bring it all together.” 

Though Nora has been working in the construction field completing accessibility- and safety-related projects for nine years, Hope Renovations began taking on aging-in-place work in summer 2020. Nora received her Certified Aging-in- Place Specialist (CAPS) designation from the National Association of Home Builders in May 2021. Sandy DeWeese, the organization’s director of instruction, also holds a CAPS designation. 

“I enjoy being able to lessen the stress people feel by not having an aging-friendly home,” Nora says. “By completing ramps, tub-to-shower conversions and grab bars, we are able to help people breathe a little easier and give them some peace of mind.” 

aging in place bathroom

By the time Hope Renovations begins a project, most of their clients have been in need of upgrades for a while. “The gratitude they give us is enough to make your heart burst,” Nora says. “And the work we can do for them can be truly transformational. We’ve seen even the smallest projects change lives.” 

In March, Luvinia Williams was one such client. She was in need of a ramp, as a deteriorating, unlevel concrete stoop without a railing made it challenging for her to enter and exit the home. Due to its condition, rather than anchor the ramp to the stoop, Nora and her team decided to build a new porch at the same time. “The situation got so bad that Ms. Williams was having to squeeze between her overgrown shrubs and a brick wall just to get into her house,” Nora adds. “When you learn things like that – stories of how seniors are having to make do with what they have, often unsafely, just to live their daily lives – it really drives home how important this work is.” 

“The team was super,” Luvinia says. “I have never had an experience like that, watching a group of ladies not only do the hard work of building, but doing so in a way that was so organized, and clearly enjoying themselves while they were doing it.” She feels thankful to have an organization like Hope Renovations in Chapel Hill. “Now my niece wants to take their classes so she can do for others what the team did for me.” 

“If more people thought about the long-term impacts of how their home is designed, such as floor transitions, doorknobs, tubs and showers, it would make life easier for a lot of people,” Nora explains. “And aging-in-place design can be lovely! Your home doesn’t have to look like an institution.” Nora notes decorative grab bars, slip-resistant flooring with beautiful textures and lighting upgrades can all add to a home’s value as well as its safety and functionality. If Hope Renovations’ portfolio of work is any indication, an aging-friendly bathroom can be a gorgeous one too. 

And the nonprofit is getting some major attention. In February, Nora was awarded the 2021 Young Professionals Award by the National Association of Home Builders; in May, Nora was recognized as a CNN Hero and featured in a video segment highlighting her students and Luvinia’s project. 

aging in place pantry
A floor-to-ceiling pantry.

ACCESSIBLE TO ALL 

Chad Collins of Collins Design-Build has a few decades of home-building experience, and added aging-in-place design to his repertoire with the CAPS certification in 2012. “The program teaches the technical, business management and customer service skills essential to competing in one of the fastest growing segments of the residential remodeling industry,” Chad says.

In the course, Chad learned firsthand the difficulties people with disabilities can face doing everyday activities. “One of the activities included placing a tennis
ball in my hand while sliding a sock over my forearm to simulate the limitations of those who may suffer from arthritis [while opening a doorknob],” Chad explains. Now, he recommends lever-style door knobs in projects for those with mobility concerns.

After completing the certification, Chad realized that in addition to retrofitting existing homes, he could start designing and building new homes that intentionally incorporate modifications for aging. “Aging-in-place practices are much deeper than a wheelchair ramp to the front door,” Chad says. While ramps are still a vital component of accessibility, the need for them can be eliminated by planning a home’s foundation or crawl space to be in the ground rather than above it, eliminating the need for steps into the home in the first place. “We pride ourselves on having at least one entrance [in every design] as a zero-step entrance.”

This same methodology extends to bathrooms – having a level floor throughout the home means all trip hazards, including floor transitions and shower entries, can be eliminated.

Other considerations include proper lighting throughout the home. In his training, Chad experienced simulations on how exposed lightbulbs and direct sunlight can affect those with impaired vision. “Lighting locations, as well as the wall color in our homes, may affect our clients’ mobility negatively,” Chad says. It is key to provide lighting that is bright enough to provide visibility, but not too harsh. “We want appropriate lighting with accessible controls.”

However, Chad says accessibility is just one part of the puzzle. “While we strive to make 100% of our homes accessible to all, incorporating adaptability options in our homes allows our homeowners the ability to transform their homes as they age,” he says. And it never hurts to plan ahead for the unexpected. “In some cases, as they have surgeries, such as knee or hip replacement, a full bedroom and full bathroom on the main level is important.”

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