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Originally published Friday, August 2, 2013 at 8:06 PM

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Remodeling to fit your aging needs

One alternative to moving that is becoming increasingly more popular is to adapt the home to make it more user-friendly as we age.

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For many elder Americans, growing older often means uncomfortable changes in the ability to do day-to-day tasks and even basic mobility. One aspect of aging that millions of seniors are clear on is that they do not want to move out of familiar surroundings and into a nursing home.

One alternative that is becoming increasingly more popular is to adapt the home to make it more user-friendly as we age. There are now even experts in the aging-in-place concept who can assist in these modifications.

The National Association of Home Builders, one of the largest organizations for contractors, engineers and home designers, offers a certification for licensed builders who want to concentrate and expand their skills for the aging population.

The Certified Aging-in-Place (CAPS) designation is earned after a three-day workshop, with testing each day, and must be maintained with regular continuing education. The first day starts with several sensitivity exercises, says Theresa Crahan, NAHB executive director for remodelers. Students are asked to wear sunglasses smeared with Vaseline, to simulate aging eyesight. They are told to sit in a wheelchair and then maneuver in and out of rooms, opening and closing doors.

Perhaps the most telling exercise, Crahan says, is when students are told to place a tennis ball in their non-handwriting hand, cover it with a sock and then write a check — to simulate arthritis. “That’s an aha moment” for many, she says.

Glenn J. Gullo, who has been a general contractor for a dozen years, says his Tampa, Fla.-based company, Home Safe, focuses almost full-time on remodeling homes, town houses and condos for aging consumers and customers with disabilities.

Gullo, who took the CAPS course about five years ago, recommends consumers consider several modifications, according to their specific needs and budgets:

• Grab bars in the bathroom over the tub and/or in the shower. Gullo, 57, says he has grab bars in his shower. “They’re great to hold onto when you wash your face and your eyes are closed.”

• For people in wheelchairs or using a walker, consider a ramp over the stairs. This would apply even for an apartment or condo with a low threshold.

• Reduce the step-up on stairs from the traditional 7 inches to 4 inches.

• Take out the tub and put in a shower — with the proper safeguards. Gullo says 65,000 serious injuries happen in showers each year. A roll-in shower for people in wheelchairs can be built, with no lip or step and a drain slightly below floor level.

• Keep the tub and turn it into a walk-in. There are replacement walk-in tubs that can be expensive, Gullo notes, or a less-expensive kit can be used to create a door that can be cut into the side of a tub and the edges smoothed.

• Standard bathroom doors are 24 inches wide; the doorway can be widened to 30 or 32 inches by using offset hinges.

• Replace round doorknobs with levers. “Can you pass the closed-fist test?” Gullo asks. “Can you open the door or turn on the faucet with a closed fist?” If not, then a lever doorknob is much more practical.

• Tables and kitchen counters can be made to accommodate residents in wheelchairs. These are custom-made jobs, Gullo notes. Exact measurements are made with the customer in his or her wheelchair.

• Kitchen ranges can be installed with controls in the front. Microwaves can be mounted lower for easier access.

• For residents with walkers or wheelchairs, “carpets aren’t all that great,” he says. Vinyl or wooden floors are better.

• Deadbolt locks can be installed with a remote button, similar to what is used on many new cars, along with the traditional key.

To find a CAPS remodeler, architect, contractor, home designer or engineer in your area, go to NAHB.org/capsdirectory.

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