Many Aging HomeOwners Exploring Accessibility Options

Patti Singer
Staff writer • September 28, 2010

Paul Nunes and his wife, Elizabeth Waller, lived 25 years in their dream house in Fairport.

They raised two daughters who played under a stately maple tree in an ample backyard. When the family pushed at the walls, Nunes and Waller added a music room for his piano and many other instruments.

But dreams change and needs grow bigger than space for the Steinway.

Waller, 57, has been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease
that doctors suspect is lupus. It has worsened over the past two years and made her arthritis more aggressive. She can walk haltingly and painfully with a cane but relies on a scooter.

A chair lift runs upstairs, but the basement is out of the question. Nunes also is 57, and while stairs aren’t a problem now, someday they will be.

Sparked by concerns about their own health or worries about aging parents, many middle-aged people are thinking about how they can age in place — stay in their house and neighborhood. Over the past decade, academic institutions, community organizations and municipalities across the nation have studied how policies can effectively and efficiently meet the needs of seniors who want to live on their own.

Aging in place seems like a new idea, but it has roots in the Older Americans Act passed in 1965
as a response to a lack of community services for seniors. The act was amended in 2006 to address, among other issues, aging and disability resource centers, choices for independence and physical and mental health.

Locally, Monroe County’s Office for the Aging partners with nonprofit agencies to link seniors to resources in areas such as advocacy, nutrition, home support and transportation.

Despite the comprehensive approach, aging in place has come to be associated with home modification to allow older people to stay in their houses.

In the city of Rochester, changes to the housing policy instituted in 2008 do not specifically address the elderly but they do cover development and redevelopment in residential and mixed-used areas to create neighborhoods accessible for all ages.

“You look at the broader community outside your door,” said Julie Beckley, senior housing specialist for the city’s Department of Neighborhood and Business Development. “Then you’re looking at issues of a livable community. Any time you make it easier for an older person to negotiate a surface, it will be better for a mother with a stroller.”

According to the Rochester Homebuilders Association, 25 percent to 40 percent of the market for remodeling is to anticipate needs.

Patty and Craig Wright of Parma recently had their bathroom redone. “We wanted to keep in mind that we’re getting older,” 50-year-old Patty Wright said.
“This is our home, we don’t plan on moving.”

They had the tub replaced with a walk-in shower with a corner seat. They also raised the sink and had a new, higher toilet installed.

“We wanted to make a decision now before we were forced into it.”

Builders occasionally will put in an accessible shower for younger people, or they do new construction using the principles of universal design that eliminates interior walls, doorways and corners that can be obstacles to wheelchairs. But first-floor living and master suites tend to be baby boomer renovations.

“I don’t think there’s 1 percent of people in their 30s who are thinking of aging in place,” said Jay Tovey of Rochester, who has certification from the
National Association of Homebuilders as an aging-in-place specialist.

Nunes said that even people his age, including himself, try to deny the inevitable. He was shocked into awareness by his wife’s increasing needs.

“I have to say that Paul has been far more prepared for this than I was,” Waller said. “He had a sense of the direction we were going to go and needed
to go much sooner than I did.”

The couple looked into renovating their 110-year-old bungalow and hired Pittsford architect Patrick J. Morabito for advice. He advised against the plan
because it would ruin the architectural lines, and Paul, former president of the Landmark Society of Western New York, couldn’t bear that. They looked
at three other houses before coming upon a Cape Cod less than one-half mile from their current home.

Nunes admitted that their project is not the typical aging-in-place renovation. He is working with Morabito, builder Paul Sorbello of Sorbello Brothers
of Shortsville, Ontario County, and remodeling expert James Kruger of Home Escapes in Penfield to add 1,400 square feet to the 900-square-foot structure.

The original house has been gutted and will be rebuilt with the master suite, a library for Waller, a powder room and laundry room on the first floor. Guest
rooms will be upstairs. The addition will be one large space that will have the kitchen, living room, dining room and the piano.

Nunes described in detail where everything would go, then paused. “If Liz did not become disabled, would I be doing this? No.

“It’s an emotional journey.”

He said there is sadness at having to leave their old house, where pencil lines on a door casing track their daughters’ growth. But Nunes and Waller said that a new one will allow them to grow old with less worry.

It also will let Waller reclaim a chore. With the washer and dryer up from the basement, she can do laundry.

“The little things of daily life that are part and parcel of a shared life together,” she said. “If I can regain my independence, that will take the burden
off Paul.”

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