How to age proof your home

I live in Boston in a 1916 New England colonial that I love. It's a perfect location, across from a park, five minutes from public transportation and four blocks from restaurants and stores. But the house won't be perfect if my husband and I have mobility problems when we get older. There are steps galore, narrow doorways and bathtubs and showers that require agility.

This is a challenge that many of us must face one day. A recent study conducted by Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies found that fewer than 25% of homeowners age 55 and older have a no-step entry into their house or between rooms, or a first-floor bedroom and full bath.

Rather than wait for a crisis, some couples are retrofitting their space- for example, moving the laundry room from the basement to the first floor, converting the downstairs den into a bedroom and building additions. They are putting in kitchen counters at different levels for sitting or standing, recessing mats into the floor so there's less risk of tripping, stacking closets where an elevator could later go and installing backing for grab bars- just in case.

"Baby boomers and other homeowners don't want their home to look like a hospital, retirement facility or an old person's home. They want safety, but with the current look of home remodeling," says Joel Ambrose, CEO of HandyPro, a national company with a home modifications division.

"Everyone remembers going to an elderly relatives' home and seeing a hospital bed in the living room with medical equipment," says Deborah Pierce, a Boston architect and author of The Accessible Home. "Housing for aging in place can be beautiful if it is thought through beforehand and not when there's a crisis."

These days, many grab bars look like pretty towel racks or elegant toilet tissue holders. A ramp into the house can be disguised with landscaping on both sides as a gently sloping walkway.

Tweaks such as a curbless shower with a bench or drop-down seat, wide doorways, levers instead of doorknobs and nonskid flooring are just good universal design, better for not only walkers and wheelchairs, but baby strollers and bikes, too. Controlling heating, lights and doors remotely from a smartphone or keypad works for all generations.

More availability and support

The aging of the baby boomers has spawned Certified Aging-in-Place Specialists (CAPS), who receive special training through the National Association of Home Builders. People who have earned the CAPS designation are typically contractors, architects and interior designers who use their training to make homes safer and more accessible for older  adults.

The fixes range in price. Grab bars cost $50 to $250; adding handrails on a staircase and lever handles on faucets and doors can be less than $1,000; adding a handheld shower can cost $300; removing a tub and replacing it with a curved shower is $8,000 to $10,000, while adding a walk-in shower with glass is $12,000 to $15,000.

Also, widening a doorway is $800 to $1,200; putting in a wheelchair ramp tuns $1,600 to $3,200; installing a stair lift is $3,000 to $12,000. An elevator can be $20,000 plus.

Expensive, yes, but Houston CAPS contractor Dan Bawden urges homeowners to compare a $75,000 aging-in-place project , let's say with the price of long-term care. (According to a 2015 study by Genworth, a long-term care and insurance company, the mean cost for one year of assisted living is $43,000, while a year in a nursing home runs $80,300 to $91,250.)

The downsizing approach

Jeanette Watling-Mills went with a different approach. The 66 year old Sarasota, Florida widow decided to sell her 3,000 square foot home and move to a place half the size. While the new house was on one level, parts were not designed for aging in place- especially the master bath. She gutted and reconfigured the master bathroom and also changed her front door so it now has a keyless entry, opening with a keypad or remote control. When she needs to replace kitchen appliances, Watling-Mills plans to get a stove with front controls and create a lower countertop 'Should I ever need to be on wheels," she says.

Even so, that perfect home for growing older may not be so perfect. "Your place could be age-friendly and wonderful until you can't drive anymore and can't get home-care services," says Denver geriatrician Mary Tuuk. "Planning ahead for how and where you're going to age in place is critically important."

7 Steps for making your home age-friendly

1. Talk to a real estate agent before you renovate to make sure it's a good investment for resale.

2. Compare the costs of renovating to moving.

3. Think about the community, not just your house. Will you be too isolated as you get older? What kind of services and opportunities are nearby (not just doctors, but transportation, stores, restaurants, entertainment?)

4. Figure out what changes you can make before you need to. 9Do you have a bedroom or full bath on the first floor, or room for them? Easy access from the driveway or sidewalk? Slippery rugs?)

5. Be realistic. If you're redoing a bathroom or kitchen, design it for the future you, not just today's needs.

6. Find a Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) in your area (

7. Check out these resources:

AARP HomeFit Guide, search 'Home Fit Guide'

AARP Liveable Communities Index, search 'Liveable Communities'

MetLife Agiing in Place Workbook, search 'Aging in Place Workbook'

National Aging in Place Council


By Sally Abrahms- an expert on baby boomers and seniors, focusing on age 50-plus caregiving, housing and aging in place technology.