Age In Place - Retool Your Home To Suit Your Future Life Stages

This article was written by Alicia Reid, a realtor with Coldwell Banker Bain based in Redmond, WA.

In my real estate business, I noticed something happening a few years ago. Many of my Boomer and even a few GenX clients began to ask me to find properties where they plan to eventually retire or larger homes where they may bring extended family to live with them. It started infrequently, but now it's common to hear these requests. Boomers are looking for homes or condominiums with main floor master suites, main floor bedroom and bathroom combinations, and single story homes. They are buying them in the safest, most convenient locations. Their planning typically includes using these properties as income producers to help pay their own way. Some of these folks are still quite content living in their 2 and 3 story properties; but they've begun the process of future planning for the eventual simplification of their lives in their retirement. But this type of expenditure isn't available to everyone, nor is it prudent in all cases, especially when considering a home that is already in a fabulous, safe, convenient location.

With the current state of the real estate market and the high cost of selling and relocating, (not to mention the emotional attachment and other reasons many folks have for staying in their homes) many seniors are considering creative ways of remaining in their existing homes throughout their golden years to effectively "age in place". Watching my parents as the Sandwich Generation and experiencing a little of that myself has been rather enlightening. It is impossible for me to discuss planning this without tempering my response with my perspective as a wife, a mother of a special needs child, a daughter, a daughter-in-law, and a granddaughter as well as a Realtor.

The first thing to consider is how aging and health issues impact your daily lifestyle. Here's the part where you attempt to forecast. Dust off that crystal ball! To make it simple, I have identified the following phases or stages:

Phase 1: Active, alert, driving, older but able bodied. In this phase people are interested in maintaining the lifestyle in the current home, but with less physical effort or exertion. In this phase one the people are independent but may rely occasionally on others for assistance for minor illnesses or short term projects. They are able to meet their own social and community needs by reaching out to others and interacting. They are fully autonomous, but may need a little help from others physically to assist them with some of the larger chores, grounds keeping and maintenance around the home.

Phase 2: Whether through general health decline, or even with a temporary illness, this is a phase that fluctuates and the level and intensity of service that is needed may shift as well. In this phase the person or people may become more dependant in several of the following areas, on a regular basis: transit or driving, yard care, home care, nursing care, bookkeeping/ bill payment, bank deposits, banking, stocks, investments, real estate, outside sources of income, medications, laundry, shopping, house keeping, social network, meals and grooming or personal hygiene.

Establish service and care providers well in advance and set up a system for a trusted family member or members, or a friend to monitor the care and service that they are receiving and paying for. The objective is to create the plan and implement it in Phase 1, so that by the time they have entered Phase 2, they will have all the necessary modifications completed so that they may smoothly move forward with life.

Phase 3: The day may never come; people may live lives fully without ever slipping into Phase 2 or 3. But it is vastly easier to follow their wishes; if they give an advanced directive of their wishes. Plan for the possibility of a future where one or both parents may become fully dependant upon others for their care and grooming. Plan for a day when they may not be competent to make their own business decisions.

The day may come when they are not be able to make their own personal, medical and financial and even home maintenance decisions. Who do they want providing these services? If they can't decide on a family member or friend, or an attorney, they might enlist the services of a special independent third party administrator to make decisions on their behalf for portions of their estate that are business related and may have more possible controversy with heirs, and to run audits and ensure that the care providers, service providers and vendors are not taking advantage of the situation. Budget for these experts in Phase 1 and you will have enough in your reserve accounts to handle these issues.

If it is a complex estate, there may be more than one administrator or trustee overseeing various aspects- business affairs, personal affairs and someone authorized to make health care decisions. These times are trying and emotional enough for family members, it will go much more smoothly if it is planned and guided in the manner dictated by your parent's wishes. They can be cognizant but not competent to manage all of their affairs. So it is critical that their wishes be carried out when they are in this most vulnerable phase.

Phase 1 is the most involved process. This is their time to create the strategic plan. This is the time to develop a budget, with repair and other reserves, and a plan for the worst case scenario. This should be as detailed as any business plan. It's your parent's business plan for aging in place. They should consult a financial planner and an attorney. Draw up a will, and an advanced health care directive and any other documents that their representatives deem necessary. . Explore options for managing their affairs should they reach Phase 3 in the aging process. Now is also the time to set up their financial planning and any special plans or wishes they have for any adult children that with special needs that may require a guardianship or strategic planning as well. This is the time to identify the issues with the subject property and to prepare a budget and timeline for making universal design modifications. Project household expenses, maintenance and repair reserves, heating and cooling expenses, property taxes and more.

Next, objectively review the floor plan of the home. If they can't do this, hire an architect, residential designer or accessibility contractor to look at the existing floor plan and see how it could be made fully accessible through retro fitting modifications. Learn how to incorporate elements of universal design so that they can continue to use the same space well into the future in varying degrees of mobility.

Would a dish drawer make more sense than a regular dishwasher? Typically they are more accessible than most dishwashers. Should your oven be at a lower height? Should it have a door that lifts up? Is there a bedroom on the main floor? Or is there a den or bonus room that could be converted to use as a bedroom? If they don't have a shower or bathtub on the main floor, is there a half bath or a laundry room? There may be a way to reconfigure the existing rooms to accommodate an accessible stall shower as well as a front loading combination washer/dryer that takes up less space. If it has steps, add ramps. Add lifts on the stairs or a pneumatic elevator if necessary, but ensure that they have a good fire escape route and exit route during a power failure.

Consider adding an "always on" generator. Instead of door knobs, change to lever handles. Make the property wheelchair accessible. Most wheelchairs are between 27-28 inches wide. With knuckles on either side you should allow a minimum door width of 32 inches. If your plan includes a future time when in-home care providers may be required 24 hours per day, modify the house in such a manner that you have a minimum of 2 bedrooms so that you may accommodate overnight staff.

Look at their surroundings with a critical eye. In the yard, simplify their ground maintenance. Check their roof, if the roof is older, they may wish to consider budgeting for a new roof that requires less maintenance or possibly new gutters or gutter covers to eliminate the need to perform routine gutter cleaning. Do they have too many planter beds to weed? Or too much lawn to mow? Which is less expensive to water and maintain?

Project into the future; do they have the budget to maintain the landscaping to the level required by their homeowner's association if they have one? Set aside budget reserves to cover these types of projects over the course of the statistical estimation of their lifespan. Consult a landscape designer, or a gardening service for suggestions of small changes that you can make to the yard that will make it easier and less expensive to maintain. Using native plantings and other suggestions can result in lower water use, better performance in the local climate, and make the property easier and more efficient for you or others to maintain which will enhance the affordability for your maintenance plan in the future.

Make a plan that includes someone trusted to audit their home life should they reach late stages 2 and 3. Someone needs to monitor that the home care service is administering the correct dosages of medicine, that they are bathing and caring for those who are completely dependant and unable to advocate for themselves. Have a plan where some of the most valuable and meaningful items are removed from the home and stored safely before strangers begin working on site without full time constant supervision. Audit the person's food in their pantry, clothing and medication. Staff can steal. If they plan it right, aging in place will go smoothly for your parents.

Altering the design of the home to be retrofitted for universal accessibility can not only be personally rewarding for your parents; but it can be aesthetically pleasing as well. There are amazing products available to designers and contractors these days. And ultimately, by creating housing that is designed to be accessible to all people, you have the potential to add value and increase the number of potential future buyers for the property as well.

This article was written by Alicia Reid. Alicia R. Reid is a second-generation Realtor specializing in residential properties in the greater Seattle Metropolitan area. She is also is a housing provider as a partner in the ownership and operation of two Manufactured Housing "Older Person's Communities" and various other income producing residential properties.

She is an advocate in the local special education community. She lives in Sammamish, WA with her husband of eleven years, Charley Reid, a residential designer, and their two school age sons.

View Alicia's realtor profile on Homethinking

Browse Boomerater's Senior Housing directory or Find your perfect town.