Aging in Place: The New Imperative

Baby boomers have never been satisfied with the status quo; they challenge everything in their paths, including retirement. While boomers can’t escape aging, it will be on their terms. Staying in their homes and maintaining their independence is a central goal. “Aging in place” is both a movement and a quickly growing market. Be it seniors looking to remain comfortable in their own homes, or the physically challenged looking to live noninstitutionally, builders are responding and see electrical contractors (ECs) playing a vital role.

“The baby boomer generation will be around for awhile,” said Dan Bawden, president of Legal Eagle Contractors Co., Bellaire, Texas. His 32-year-old firm specializes in residential remodeling.

“Look at today’s consumer demand for aging-related products,” Bawden said. “The mainstream is not just denture cream but products like Depends and more. No matter the product, the message remains the same: ‘Age isn’t going to slow us down.’ These retirees will find ways to age in their homes. Electrical contractors should take note. They offer the expertise to make many of the enhancements in convenience, safety and home livability happen.”

Setting the stage

According to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), boomers represent 76 million people born between 1946 and 1964. AARP’s 2006 report, “Aging in Place and Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities,” found 89 percent of older Americans indicated that they want to stay in their residences for as long as possible. That desire has not abated. In recent AARP survey of its members, New Hampshire respondents overwhelmingly voiced their preference for long-term care (LTC) in the home. The state’s LTC funds for older adults go largely to nursing home care. Eighty-four percent of respondents supported shifting such funds toward more home- and community-based services. This desire has been borne out in other states, as well.

Two more statistics that are interesting seem to bode well for remodeling work and new construction when that market rebounds. According to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), 75 percent of remodelers have seen an increase in requests for aging-in-place work, while 60 percent of remodelers already perform such work. Bawden said his firm incorporates aging-in-place features in 80 percent of its remodeling jobs.

Universal design

Universal design practices are the key to allowing homeowners to stay in their homes, whether it be the house they lived in most of their lives or a new purchase for retirement. Universal design promotes usability for everyone regardless of age, size or physical challenge. It promotes mobility, accessibility, longevity and convenience. Familiarity with provisions within the American Disabilities Act (ADA) is really just a starting point in understanding this design concept.

“Technically and legally, ADA code pertains to public buildings, not houses,” Bawden said. “ADA provisions, though, are borrowed and brought into the home. The contractor should view them as a guide. Aging-in-place work is more custom-designed with a goal of creating user independence in an aesthetically pleasing way. Manufacturers have taken note. Look at the sophistication brought to ‘accessible’ lines of products for kitchens and bathrooms including high-end finishes and other interior design choices.”

Good lighting is a central component in universal design.

“People need 60 percent more illumination for tasks after age 60,” Bawden said. “Additional lighting should be smartly considered. For instance, with light comes glare that can be problematic for a senior or someone with eye challenges. Glare can affect other decorating choices like high-gloss countertops. A contractor might consider more indirect lighting or dimmable features or even recommend a matte finish countertop. I like LED cans, but make sure to use the newer, warmer bulbs and long-life bulbs for aesthetics and convenience. We have moved back-cabinet lighting forward for better illumination, hiding it behind a 2-inch skirt.”

Rocker light switches are another basic feature making it easier for people with poor hand strength, but they are also attractive to others.

Aging-in-Place Opportunities for ECs

The National Association of Home Builders offers this useful aging-in-place checklist for electrical contractors:
• Lighting switches at each entrance to halls and rooms
• Lighting receptacles with two bulbs in vital places (exits, bathrooms)
• Lighting switches, thermostats and other environmental controls placed accessibly—no higher than 48 inches from floor
• Electrical outlets 15 inches on center from floor; may need to be closer than 12 feet apart
• Clear access of 30-by-48 inches in front of switches and controls
• Rocker or touch lighting switches
• Audible and visible strobe lighting system to indicate when doorbell, telephone or smoke/CO2 detectors have been activated
• High-tech security/intercom system that can be monitored, with heating, AC and lighting, from any TV in the house
• Easy-to-see and -read thermostats
• Preprogrammed thermostats
• Flashing porch light or 911 switch
• Direct wired to police, fire and emergency (as option)
• Home wired for security and computers

The EC also can help the homeowner plan for future needs with additional wiring and avoid the breaking of walls down the road. Maybe the EC works with the architect, so closets are stacked for a future in-home elevator.

New Millennial Homes in Tampa, Fla., won the AARP/NAHB co-sponsored Livable Communities Award in 2008 for its Freedom Home, an accessible line of homes featuring universal design. The award recognizes “excellence in design” by builders, developers, architects and others who incorporate universal design and other features.

“‘Freedomized’ is what we call having the ability to live as you choose and without an institutionalized aesthetic,” said Keith Collins, New Millennial general manager and director of adaptive housing. “Contractors pursuing aging-in-place work should also recognize that a home needs to accommodate a blend of residents. That is what universal design does. A feature that assists one resident should benefit everyone in the home.”

Named in part to recognize veterans, the company’s line of Freedom Homes represent input from practitioners who serve physically challenged individuals, those individual themselves, the AARP and other organizations.

“Five years ago, we saw a real need for accessible housing for those with special needs such as seniors and veterans,” Collins said. “Not much of what we saw took a comprehensive or terribly thoughtful approach. Accessibility was at a minimum. So we went to work developing the Freedom Home, keeping affordability in mind.”

Some of the electrical features in the homes include outlets and jacks a minimum of 18 inches from the floor with contrasting color face plates; rocker switches, environmental controls and even the circuit breaker panel located 48 inches maximum from the floor; and accessible switches for the disposal and cooktop exhaust fan and light.

Getting ideas from demo homes

Eskaton Senior Residences and Services—an advocate of independent living for the aging population—serves more than 14,000 older adults throughout Northern California. Its National Demonstration House is a winner of the 2009 Livable Communities Award.

“The demo home is a learning center for consumers, caregivers, building professionals and policy-makers,” said Sheri Peifer, Eskaton’s vice president of research and strategic planning. “Its features maximize function, accessibility and beauty. We use the house to raise awareness on aging-in-place and attractive universal design.”

The Eskaton demo offers ECs a font of ideas in serving the aging-in-place customer. Some of its features include health-monitoring systems. Residents can upload medical readings (e.g., weight, blood pressure, blood glucose levels) and give family members the ability to receive alerts if numbers are high. Sensors in the home can detect abnormal movements such as when someone falls down. Healthcare professionals also can access data. Emergency help will be alerted when necessary.

Other features include useful lighting on pathways and elsewhere activated by motion sensors throughout the house. A console touchscreen allows for the control of any number of home automation systems including heating, ventilating and air conditioning; it can also access surveillance cameras.

Universal Design Fundamentals

• Design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.
• Design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
• Design is simple and intuitive.
• Design communicates effectively regardless of room or user’s sensory abilities.
• Design minimizes living hazards.
• Design promotes low physical effort for end-user.
• Design offers appropriate size and space for approach, reach, manipulation and use regardless of user body size, posture or mobility.
Source: North Carolina State University, The Center for Universal Design, 1997

Getting to know the market

Efforts such as sustainable design, future-proofing and home integration play a role in aging in place. For contractors, their homework lies in understanding the needs and desires of the client. The National Council on Aging (, the National Aging in Place Council ( and are great resources to get up to speed. AARP and NAHB are also useful. In fact, these two organizations created the Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) program that teaches the essential “technical, business management and customer service skills” needed to serve this distinct customer and market. Bawden, a frequent NAHB instructor, helped create the program.

The three-day program covers marketing and communication strategies for aging and accessibility, design/build solutions, and business management for remodeling work.

“Our first classes were created for remodeling contractors,” Bawden said. “Then other people showed up like interior designers, architects, realtors, but even more interesting, occupational therapists, physical therapists, and specialists. What emerged was the idea of working with the medical community to find this work, perfect it and seek out patients who need help. What an opportunity for ECs to target a new audience of medical practitioners: ‘‘I’m an electrical contractor with a specialty in universal design that can serve the special needs of seniors and others who are physically challenged.’”

Collins believes the aging-in-place market is growing faster than the numbers who train.

“Progressive contractors already realize this market is here and expanding. It’s time for everyone to take note,” he said.

GAVIN is the owner of Gavo Communications, a marketing services firm serving the construction, landscaping and related design industries. He can be reached at

About the Author

Jeff Gavin

Freelance Writer

Jeff Gavin, Gavo Communications, is a LEED Green Associate providing marketing services for the energy, construction, and urban planning industries. He can be reached at

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