WASHINGTON -- Experts call it the home of the future: wider hallways, nonslip floors, bathroom grab bars and adjustable shower seats -- all for the comfort and convenience, too, of aging baby boomers.
Boomers are getting advice today from AARP, the National Association of Home Builders and other groups they should looking into remodeling sooner rather than later.
''When you wait until that crisis hits, you're operating at a disadvantage,'' said Elinor Ginzler, an AARP expert on long-term care and independent living.
In the coming years, the nation's aging population is expected to surge as baby boomers enter their senior years.
Ginzler cites as an example an older person who unexpectedly goes into the hospital for hip surgery.
''You're not 100 percent impaired but your functioning level has declined,'' Ginzler said. ''They're going to be asking you in the hospital what your home environment is like. If 20 years before you had already looked (at modifications) then you would be able to answer those questions without even flinching.''
As Americans are living longer, more are indicating a preference for spending their senior years in their own homes. In a recent AARP housing survey, 83 percent of respondents said they want to stay in their current homes for the rest of their lives.
Ginzler advises people to decide early where they want to spend their final years.
''First, you need to have the difficult conversation with yourself and your family members: 'Where do I want to spend the second half of my life?' she said. ''If you answer, 'I want to stay just where I am,' then you have to think about is this house -- the way it is right now -- going to let me spend the rest of my life here? You assess your home room by room.''
It's important for people to remember that ''the way I am now is not necessarily the functioning level I will be at the end,'' she added.
Louis Tenenbaum, an independent living strategist, is one of those people who helps homeowners evaluate their living space. ''Your house is a tool for living,'' Tenenbaum said. ''I basically go in, and ask them what the problems are they're having, then look around, make suggestions about what they could do, then do the design they could do in order to get where they want to go.''
One of his clients, Susan Womble of Chevy Chase, Md., said she wanted to make her home more suitable for her husband, Mel, who was diagnosed in 1997 with Huntington's disease. The genetic disorder gradually reduces a person's ability to walk, talk and reason.
Mel Womble, 72, is not confined to a wheelchair now, but his wife wanted to be prepared.
''Basically my home is now handicap accessible,'' Womble, 50, said of her 2-year-old renovations. But she added, ''The house does not look like it's any different than another house.''
The Wombles spent about $180,000 to remove steps at the front door, widen hallways and doorways, install grab bars in the bathroom, build a caretaker's apartment in the basement and even lower sinks and stoves so someone in a wheelchair could reach things comfortably.
One key feature for Susan Womble was combining the kitchen, dining room and family rooms into one large area. ''When I was fixing meals it was important for me to be able to see Mel, not only to interact with him but for safety.''
A complete overhaul at once is unnecessary. Preparing one's home can be gradual and simple: choosing a side-by-side refrigerator to increase storage available with a limited reach, raising electrical outlets to 27 inches above the floor, installing easier-to-turn faucet levers and door handles, purchasing smoke detectors with strobe lights.
When consumers are ready for major remodeling, experts say various loans are available and the changes will likely increase a home's value.
AARP and other groups are counting on ''universal design'' houses capable of adapting to families' changing needs as they age will become a standard for the homebuilding industry.
For instance, a shelf in the bathtub of a young family's home will allow parents to sit and bathe children without having to lean over the tub. That same shelf can be used by the parents when they get older and need help getting in and out of the tub.
Senior citizens remain a largely untapped market for professional remodelers.
In May, the National Association of Home Builders plans to begin a training program to discuss the special needs of older homeowners. Contractors will be taught everything from how to communicate with seniors to how to audit a home for potential problems.
The group notes that 80 percent of all Americans 55 years or older own their own homes -- the highest homeownership rate of any age group.
''People are having their consciousness heightened about the fact that you can make changes to your place ... with the intention of remaining there as you age without having to go into a nursing home,'' said Dan Bawden, a Houston remodeling contractor who heads up the program. ''This is a rapidly growing market.''
On the Net:
National Association of Home Builders: http://www.nahbrc.org
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