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Feeling Much Safer at Home

The New York Times


The New York Times

To accommodate his 77- year-old mother, Norma, and with an eye to design and aesthetics, Bob Kocis is making a bathroom on the first floor of his Huntington house easier for her to use. The bathroom is next door to Norma's bedroom and will feature a stall shower that's easy to step into, with safety grab bars and a handheld shower head; an elongated toilet seat, and handy access to toiletries.

Kocis, 41, who is a builder, also is installing a low island in the kitchen so his mother can easily sit there and have meals with the family. And he is ensuring that his mother has her privacy and can appreciate the outdoors when she stays with him: Her bedroom has its own entrance to an outside wraparound porch.

Norma Kocis, who was a homemaker, lives with Kocis and his wife, Nancy, 40, a cardiac surgical nurse, and their three children about two months a year. She divides the rest of her time among his seven siblings.

Down the road when the house is sold, the bedroom could easily become a comfortable guest room, an au pair bedroom or a home office with its own bathroom - allowing the retrofit to keep up the value and marketability of the residence, Kocis says. This retrofitting is part of an overall renovation of the house that will turn it from a Cape Cod into a post-modern Victorian, he says.

Not only will the bathroom be easy for his mother to use, but it "also will be appealing and attractive and will add to the home's value overall," says Kocis, who is chief executive officer of a Huntington Station remodeling company called LI Remodel.com. He estimates the bathroom remodeling will be completed by August at a cost of $13,000.

For similar Long Island families who must retrofit their homes to make them more accessible for elderly parents moving in with them or for seniors who need to make their own houses easier to maneuver as they age, it is always important to think long-term about whether the renovations will help maintain the value of these pieces of real estate. Retrofitting can run the gamut in cost, from hundreds of dollars to thousands, depending upon what work needs to be done.

Older homes were not necessarily built to accommodate aging people. Today, however, some newer homes are being built with them in mind, says Ralph Gillis, president of Gillis Previti Architects PC in Manhattan.

As the population ages, more of these kind of retrofittings are being completed in residences. For instance, Marvin Schwartz, chief executive officer of Jarro Building Industries Corp., an East Meadow remodeling firm, says additions and renovations to accommodate the elderly have gone up about 25 percent in his business over the past five years.

An increasing need

"This is becoming a greater issue these days," says Brooklyn geriatric care manager Marion Somers, author of the forthcoming book "Elder Care Made Easier: Doctor Marion's 10 Steps to Help You Care for an Aging Loved One" (Addicus, $16.95). "We have very many older people in our country, and there is an attempt by family members to keep grandma or grandpa living at home - even if it means spending money to make those homes much more livable and usable. This is why you're seeing reverse mortgages, for example, become more popular."

Eventually these residences will be sold, and homeowners will want a residence that suits their family's needs without looking too institutional, notes Diane Saatchi, a former occupational therapist who is now the East Hampton-based senior vice president of The Corcoran Group, a real estate firm.

"The good news is that when you make something in a home more accessible, that usually means you're adding more space and convenience, and that's a plus for resale value," says Gillis.

For instance, when widening doorways to 36 inches to fit a wheelchair, consider adding double French doors in some rooms, Saatchi says. This may add 25 percent more to your cost per room, but also will give the area an open, attractive look and feel.

And if you have a very wide hallway, turn it into an art gallery with paintings on the walls, Gillis adds. Illuminate the walls with good lighting - both to assist someone who is visually impaired and to showcase artwork at the same time. And avoid putting down slippery area rugs.

One inexpensive way to retrofit is to have the elderly parent's room on the ground floor, if possible, so he or she won't have to worry about dealing with steps, Schwartz says. However, if someone is in a wheelchair, adding a ramp to the front of a home with attractive landscaping on either side will provide important accessibility and curbside appeal, says Bonnie Doran, Manhasset-based vice president and director of business development for Daniel Gale Sotheby's International Realty. Costs for a ramp and landscaping could run from $10,000 to $15,000, Gillis says.

"It's worth bringing in the expertise of a landscape architect, as well as a home remodeler, to help design the space around a ramp and still keep the area attractive and appealing for when you want to sell the home," Doran says.

Another option is to place the ramp in a less conspicuous but easy-to-access location, such as in the back of the house near the garage, where there is also usually less snow to deal with in winter, according to Doctor Marion. "You'll have less distance to go to take grandma in and out of the house, and she can still be moved in a respectable manner," Doctor Marion says.

Little things in every room

Enlarging kitchens and bathrooms to accommodate wheelchairs or walkers also will add to a home's value, Saatchi says. Of course, she points out, newer and larger kitchens and bathrooms always make a house more desirable to buyers.

Even today's handicapped-accessible bathrooms that feature glass doors, stall showers, shower benches and sturdy grab bars can be designed with more attractive fixtures that give them a stylish, rather than an industrial, look, Saatchi adds.

Another way to make a bathroom safer for an elderly person - or anyone for that matter - is to have the hot water temperature set at a maximum of 140 degrees to prevent scalding in a shower or tub, says Chris Distante, production manager for Legacy Builders & Remodelers Corp. in Mount Sinai. Distante is also an aging-in-place specialist, a certification given by the National Association of Home Builders after someone receives specialized training.

Retrofitting a bathroom is important to Rick Sepulveda, 59, a field marketing representative for Appliance World in Huntington who is working with a contractor to have the traditional bathtub-shower combination in his mother's home converted to a stall shower.

His mother, Rose, 86, lives with her sister-in-law, Gloria Schaefer, 83, in Port Jefferson, and Sepulveda says he feels it would be safer for both family members not to have to climb in and out of a traditional bathtub. The stall shower would have glass doors and probably safety grab bars as well - and would be both functional and aesthetically pleasing.

"It's more helpful at that age to have easy access in and out of the shower, and grab bars are also a good idea if someone feels a little dizzy and loses her equilibrium," says Sepulveda, who notes that his mother had suffered a mild heart attack and underwent a gallstone removal procedure last year.

He has hired Ed Rowland, president of NDA Kitchens and Baths in Nesconset, to do the work. Rowland is a remodeler who specializes in working on kitchens and bathrooms, and Supulveda stresses the importance of working with someone with experience in retrofitting such important rooms in a home, especially when it comes to accommodating the elderly.

"Make sure you work with a reliable contractor who has experience in doing this kind of work in homes and understands your needs."

A helping hand

Tips for making a home more accessible for parents who might need assistance:

Use door levers, which are easier to open rather than door knobs. This is beneficial to those who have arthritis.

Install tightly knit - rather than plush - carpeting. It is easier to maneuver a wheelchair or walker on this surface, and the carpet can still cushion a fall.

Have adequate, bright lighting to assist the visually impaired.

Put double banisters by stairwells and front entrances.

Avoid corners with sharp edges on moulding, so that an infirm person can't injure himself or herself when turning a corner in a home.

Questions to ask yourself

Should you and your parents remodel, or just move? Dan Fritschen, author of "Remodel or Move: Make the Right Decision" (ABCD Publishing, $15.95) and founder of the homeowner information and advocacy Web site RemodelOrMove.com, suggests asking yourself the following questions:

How well does your existing home lend itself to remodeling, based on size and general layout?

What would the cost be to renovate the home in the way that you'd like and to suit your purposes, and how much more would it cost to move instead to a better house?

How long do you plan to live in the home?

Do you like or dislike the location of your house, neighborhood and the school system?

How much of the remodeling or renovating investment will you be able to recoup when you sell the house? Do you believe you will turn a profit, given your costs?

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