Friday, December 5, 2008

Being willing to modify tradition

We had a great Thanksgiving here, hope you all did. The holiday feast has moved to our house over the past decade because I love to cook, and we seem to have no shortage of family and friends who are happy to contribute and eat. But there is a certain level of stress, and a tad bit of work, to pulling it off.

I was on the bus the other day and overheard a woman say “I think I’m getting to that “Bah Humbug” stage of life where I don’t want to go through all the holiday hassle. I tried to get my family to go out to a restaurant.” This got me thinking about a story some friends of mine used to tell. One year, they headed up to visit her folks for the holiday. It’s was about a 3-4 hour drive to Seattle from Portland in those days, and all the way up they were thinking about drumsticks, mounds of mashers and puddles of gravy. They were anticipating the joy of walking into the house from a cold day and smelling all those aromas melding into a sensory explosion. Imagine their concern when they walked in and smelled…nothing.

Seems Mom had decided that it was just too hard and too much stress to cook the meal the day it was to be eaten. She had a new microwave and she intended to use it. She had peacefully cooked up the components of the meal over the weeks leading up and carefully interred them in the freezer. Dessert was even apportioned and ready to go with dessert spoons on the plate. I’ve tried to banish the thought of Swanson TV dinners with this tale, to no avail.

But while it’s easy perhaps to make fun, thinking back I’ve come to realize my friend’s Mom had done a wise thing for her. She had gotten to a point where what was once easy was stressful; where what was expected of her was not what she wanted to do. So she took control and changed the rules. She decided that doing things the same old way got in the way of her enjoyment of the holiday and her family. It’s really an admirable thing, even if I shudder at the thought of serving turkey dinner from the microwave.

This is what we need to do as we age. We need to recognize that the old ways of bathing, cooking, storing things may have been fine when we were young but as we age, we have to modify our routines. And we should do it in a way that makes us feel proud, not beleaguered. We can use new designs and new technology to our benefit. A walk-in bathtub might carry a connotation, but it’s a safer way to get a relaxing soak. Web cameras and social networking sites can help us maintain contact with friends and family and even make new friends, even if we are less mobile. Removing steps to a sunken living room may be just the way to banish the old Rat Pack era design ethics and create a more modern, safer living area. And deciding that downstairs bedroom is really just as good as the one on at the top of the stairs is a great way to intelligently change the way we do things to adapt to the way we are today.

Tradition is great and we all love to remember “the old days.” But when it comes to traditional, inflexible and intolerant aspects of home design, the sooner we relegate them to memories, the better.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Mama said they were magic shoes. They could take me anywhere.

Forrest Gump might not be quite the right image to toss out here, but the promise of Forrest’s Mama seems to be getting closer to reality. I’ve often said that technology will someday reduce the need to modify homes by helping people extend their abilities. Currently, for example, there are power chairs that stand and go upstairs. However they are cumbersome and according to one user I’ve met can be a bit frightening. The engineers at Honda keeps pushing this sort of technology forward and recently announced their prototype of robot legs. The legs are designed to be a “power assist” for people who are losing leg strength. For those of us old enough to remember, remember manual steering in a car? Think of this as power steering for your feet. It doesn’t change what we do, it just makes doing it easier and safer.

At first I wondered how you sit down, then I realized that you ARE sitting down. Technology like this might cause us to rethink a lot of things. While the prototype probably has a ways to go before it becomes practical for people who are infirm (how do you take the legs on and off?) this sort of technology has the promise of keeping people active and fitter longer. We tend to think of assistive devices as things for people who are already disabled. But as we boomers age, a large market will emerge in helping people prolong relatively normal activity. I met a man using a Segway for this purpose. Games to improve cognitive function are another example of this application of technology. Could robot arms to reach those things on the top shelf be next?

As Forrest said, “From that day on, if I was ever going somewhere, I was running!”

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Design your kitchen for the future.

Yes, of course, I've been delinquent in posting again as the summer busy season has gotten underway, but here is a link to a just published article I authored for The Boomer Advisor publication.

A well-designed kitchen can make cooking and entertaining more enjoyable. So if you're considering remodeling the kitchen, your focus is probably cosmetic. However, as you or your parents get older, there are safety issues to consider, too. This article gives some practical examples.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Aging in place is green.

I came across an article yesterday that does a good job of covering a topic we've touched on here before--that aging in place is by definition a green approach to housing. There is so much stored energy in a home that you can never be greener by building something smaller, even if you downsize and use new technologies, so we shold be planning, designing and retrofitting our current homes to accomodate long life spans and a range of life situations. This article profiles Palo Alto architect Jon Stoumen. What I like most is many of the simple, lo tech, low cost design elements--like grape vines as heat reducing sun shades. And his philosophy about going green perfectly reflects our philosophy about aging in place--do what makes sense now, but plan for the future.

"We're going for universal access, so we've laid the groundwork for the elevator, but the clients won't need it for a long time. When they do need help getting up to the second floor, they'll be able to put the elevator in because we've planned for it with the infrastructure. It's one of the things about this house that will allow the owners to age in place. And I can't think of anything greener than aging in place. When you move, you throw a bunch of stuff away, new people move in and they remodel everything and throw a bunch more stuff away," Stoumen said. For that reason, the ground floor of the home is at grade. In the future, wheelchair access will not be a problem.

The model of planning for the elevator also follows Stoumen's idea that taking small steps toward greener living is a healthy way to think about environmental improvements. "People see all that you can do to make a home greener, and they think, 'I want it all now.' But not everyone can afford to do it all now. I think it's better to do what you can now and plan for the future," Stoumen said."

Read the complete article at :

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Lifespan of modifications--its not kid stuff

Because of In Your Home's consistently high ratings on Angie's List, we are getting a lot of calls from folks from outside our specialty--growing families who are looking to modify their home to accommodate the kids. Adding extra space, adding or updating a bathroom, removing hazardous conditions. Lots of similarity to what we do for our target population and we do often take these projects on. After all, business is business. But while we have long questioned why families are willing to modify for children and not for adults, a new thought struck. Comparatively, how long can we expect these modifications to be useful?

If we modify a room for a nursery, it's appropriate for five to 10 years, depending on how many children we have and at what intervals. By the time we get around to adding a separate bedroom or bathroom, maybe we get 15 years of active use. Same for a playroom.

But what if we are in our late 50's, our 60's or 70's and looking to modify the home for the long term? That playroom converted to an adult entertainment area, hobby or exercise space could easily serve us for over 20 years. A bathroom modified to be safer and supportive for adults will easily get 10 to 20 years of useful life. And, not only will these mods add value to the home (if done attractively and well,) but they have a higher payback since they can help us stay more independent and healthy so we can avoid the expense of assisted living and long or short term nursing care. And we can enjoy them so much--most people do tend to spend more time in their homes as they age, so its all the more important that the home environment be attractive and supportive for maintaining the activities we love--hobbies, cooking, gardening, etc. The earlier we do it, but more we will benefit from it.

You could easily say that you will get as many or more useful years from aging-in-place modifications, which indicates a better financial justification. Of course, we don't remodel for our young families just because of financial payback--we do it because we want things to be the best they can be during that phase of our lives. But many of us have this dismal thought that we are getting old and aren't worth investing in. Or it's that old refusal to acknowledge that while we feel 40 we are past 60 and need to think ahead. If we get past those thoughts, then the value of adding a shop, changing a floor plan or modifying a bathroom can make things the best the can be at these new phases of life. That makes a lot of sense--financially and otherwise.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Baby Bombs

I was rather confused to read the opening lines of Sara Lin's April 25th article in the WSJ:

"Baby boomers brought ugly grab-bars to bathrooms and wheelchair ramps to hallways to prepare for growing old at home. Now they can take credit for products that people without infirmities could appreciate."

Now, I'm not sure why the ramp would be in the hallway, but more perplexing is that I don't know how boomers could possibly be responsible for such installations since most of them have yet to reach retirement age. Even if there is some demographic link (like installing them for their aging parents) those actions need not relate to the implied lack of aesthetic sense. When we couple these words with the later passage that "marketing these senior-friendly features before they're needed requires a delicate touch. The older consumers don't want to be treated like they're ready for retirement" I think we see the real conflict. "Before they're needed" is the operative phrase--people continue to think "age=infirmity and disability" and we want to keep that image from our minds as much as possible.

The real point of Lin's article is that product designer and marketers ae anticipating the aging of the boomers an bringing better designed and more supportive products to market. All well and good and long overdue. But if the boomers are truly going to redefine aging as so many pundits predict, our mindset is the key of what needs to change. Not through denial of the potential realities of age, but through embracing our older years. Whether we call it life part 2 or our second life or whatever euphemism we think will make it easier for people to swallow, the reality is that aging presents a variety of challenges and presents them in a variety of different ways to different people. The only way to prevent being victimized by this is to make up your mind to be proactive, prepare for contingencies, control your path and proceed with confidence.

One of my employees was driving with her niece and was asked the question "Auntie, why do I keep hearing about all these "baby bombs." A very cute Art Linkletter moment, but if baby boomers don't more proactively plan for what they want their latter years to be like, they will be "bombs," both in the sense of being dangerous to society and being flops.

Which brings me back to Lin's comment--modifications are about so much more than grab bars and ramps, and it is only because most of us don't approach designing homes to support all our phases of life that we have to put up with aesthetically ugly solutions. If we don't envision what we want our retirement environment to be like, then we are creating a situation where our home will constrain and fight us rather than support and nuture. If we want to define the aging experience in new ways, we must understand that our elder years are a time for continued growth and enjoyment and not just a withering away. But that will only be true if we create it and do so early enough in our lives. We need to ready ourselves and not leave it until something happens that makes it so we can't deny any longer that we are "ready." That's the way we boomers can be different than so many of our parents.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Aging in place and pets

I don't normally read the lifestyle and advice columns in the newspaper. But while looking for the crossword puzzle, Deborah Wood's Pet Talk column caught my eye today and got me thinking. She writes about a choice of a dog for an 85 year old who lives independently and has recently had knee replacement surgery (read it here).

Her article reminded me that pet care can become a bit more of a demand as we age, but the companionship pets offer is a great contributor to healthy aging and well-being. At In Your Home we regularly do small projects that help older homeowners take care of their pets more easily. Some examples:

  • Pet doors. Giving Fido a little freedom to come and go without mom having to get up and let him out can be a good thing. You want to ensure the doors are properly installed to minimize heat loss and security risks. They now offer doors that unlock and relock automatically, triggered by a sensor the pet wears.
  • Pet runs. Having a secure run complements the pet door--we often install paver stones to create a cleanable, non-muddy surface for a pet run, keeping the dog from wandering into trouble and reducing housekeeping and gardening chores. And the pavers are easily removed by the next homeowner if desired.
  • Handheld showers. Not just good for mom or dad, good for washing the dog as well.
  • Food storage and dispensers. Keep quantities of food on hand but away from vermin, and they can minimize the amount of bending/reaching required.
  • Flooring choices. Commonly we are looking to make flooring smoother and more durable to handle walkers or scooters. Laminate flooring can be tough as (dog) nails, but is not so good for under a cat box or with a pet that has "accidents." This sort of standing moisture will penetrate the seams of most laminate and not only be hard to clean, but will swell and damage the laminate itself.
  • How about some hooks by the door to keep leashes handy and easy to grab? Or making sure Fido's bed is not located where it will be a tripping hazard? Simple steps like these can really help keep the joy of pet ownership strong.

I guess I'll have to read these columns more often if they make me think--after all, brain exercise is why I wanted the crossword puzzle.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

The cost of falls

CBS News reported yesterday on new survey findings from the CDC on the prevalence and risk of falls. According the report, 1.8 million report falling in the prior three month period--up from prior numbers of 5.8 million per year. Costs of these non-fatal falls is estimated at $19 billion. The CBS report notes that many senior adults may not take wise precautions because of "embarrassment"--but don't really touch on the fact that many safety modifications do not need to look institutional nor signify frailty.

Watch the news report here:

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Dates set for 2008 Aging In Place week

WASHINGTON, D.C. (February 25, 2008) – The National Aging Aging in Place Council announced the Fifth Annual Aging in Place Week, from October 13 to October 19, 2008. Building on the success of last year, where over 100 educational activities were organized throughout the country, this year is expected to garner even greater local support and attention.

We've watched these events get more and more popular, it will be interesting to see the scope of this year's event--hopefully the trend of public and private sector participation will continue.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Aging-in-Place is about designing for dreams not just disability

I bumped into a former work colleague the other day and we got to talking about career choices in later life. This sparked one of my pet issues—that when we think about aging-in-place modifications, too often we only think about infirmity and disability rather than creating spaces that support us in broader, more fulfilling ways. Michael and his wife Eve recently decided that her long standing passion for painting and sketching should be a business as well. But to accommodate this, they needed to make a few changes around the home.

When they first moved across the country to Oregon, they downsized from a 4000 square foot converted barn to a 1500 square foot efficiency home, a common pattern for empty nesters. But the size reduction was a little too severe and when they decided to launch the new business, they had to look for some additional space. They found a new home that met their needs fairly well:

  • There is a large loft that serves as the studio and instruction area. Being above the level of the rest of the home gives them a sense of privacy. The business and the home feel distinct.

  • While the home is not large, it does have three bathrooms, one of which is easily accessed by students from the loft area and further supports the sense that the business is a separate entity.

  • They did make some modifications to the home—adding skylights to the loft area, which not only provide natural lighting for the studio but can be opened to let warm air out at night during the summers. They replaced the flooring with a high grade of linoleum for ease of cleaning in the studio environment, and they added storage to make access to art supplies easy. This sort of customized storage is something we do for many customers, providing easier access to everything from hobby materials to medical supplies to kitchen pots and pans.

  • Storage was also added to the garage for more efficient use of space—while the new home is larger than their last, it’s still smaller than their old converted barn and they had materials that they did not need to have quick access to that could be stored in the garage.

Throughout this process they’ve made conscious choices about their environment. They are working very hard to stay fit and don’t expect that the stairs will present a major obstacle in the future. But if they do it’s a single straight flight, unlike the three flights of stairs in the old home. They’ve considered low maintenance and flexibility in the design of the space. They had to make some trade-offs—they’d like one more large room for living space away from the loft and the master bath has a "useless two person tub.” But overall the new home environment is well suited to this new phase in their life. This is what good aging-in-place design is really all about in my opinion.

And if you happen to be interested in Eve’s business, check it out at

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Helping Boomers plan and adapt

The Boomer Advisor just published the first in a series of articles we've written on how to adapt the home. The targeted readers here arethe boomers who are more typically going to be concerned about these issues for a parent or grandparent. But, as the article notes some of us boomers have started experiencing the need already or will soon.

In the article we take the design of a typical modern bathroom and point out a variety of issues and tips for better design.

Read the full article at the Boomer Advisor and let us know what you think.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

When it comes to assistive technology, expect convenenience and benefit to win out.

At the National Aging In Place Council (NAIPC) regional meeting in Denver this week I heard Nathan Colburn of Accessible Solutions in Denver give a good discussion of assistive technology. Like us, Nathan feels that increasingly many needs can be met by technology rather than remodeling. But until the worst happens, and sometimes after, there are few people who will proactive seek out assistive technology.

The catch is that if you think about it, we all use “assistive technology” everyday. What about the television remote control? While it may not always be the easiest thing to master, there are not many people these days who get up and change the channels manually. (When I was a kid, kids were the assistive technology—I can still hear mom directing me to get up and change the channel for her. Young knees and all that.)

Another great example, the garage door opener—everyone in the audience who had a garage also had an automatic opener. Even simple things like eyeglasses and cell phones can be categorized as assistive technology. How about artificial joints? And all of them met with resistance and had their share of new technology issues, but we eventually embraced them because of the obvious benefits they offer. Convenience, safety, status--you name it. As we begin to embrace assistive technology for aging, the “mature market” will increasing experience the benefits. And that will lead to more widespread acceptance which will yield benefits for all.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Why bother?

I came across the grab bar install shown in the photo the other day. Unfortunately, I did not have someone with me who could have sat in the tub and shown the impracticality of this installation. If you are lying in this tub, to try and use this bar your arms are high and above the plane of your shoulder which makes it impossible to gain leverage—believe me, I tried it. And, the grab bar is almost useless for getting down into the tub—probably a good thing because once you get down there it is not going to help you get back up. The bar also offers no support to someone showering.

This installation (in a hotel room) is clearly something that was done to meet at requirement or policy (or a desire to not obstruct the soap dish) without regard for the actual benefit of the user. Worthless—someone who knew what they were doing could have easily specified or installed the bars in a position that would have been more likely to be beneficial. Does anyone see a practical aspect here that I am missing? Or is this just a waste of stainless steel?

Monday, January 21, 2008

Another reason to like Hawaii

I'll admit, Hawaii is one of my favorite vacation spots and we are planning to get back there this winter. But in addition to great views, warm water and tropical breezes, I came across this bit of news from the Aloha state that makes me like it all the better. Govenor Linda Lingle has proposed several tax relief meassures, one of which definitely relates to what I talk about all the time:

Aging in Place Tax Credit

To make it easier and more practical for seniors to stay in their own homes or with their family, the Administration is proposing a refundable tax credit of up to 50 percent of the costs to modify a personal residence to accommodate an aging or disabled family member. Examples of qualifying expenditures include grab bars in a shower or bathtub, ramps or inclines, and larger doorways for wheelchairs. The maximum credit would be $2,500 for a single taxpayer or $5,000 for a married couple. The tax credits would save residents $8 million per year.

Can we look to other states to be forward looking in this area? Or at least play catch-up?

Link to Governor Lingle's proposal