Jean Johnson and Niel Ritchie love their Linden Hills neighborhood too much to ever leave it.
“It’s a small town in the big city,” said Johnson. “The relationships you build when you stay in one place — those relationships are invaluable.”
Still, after watching elderly neighbors lose the struggle to stay in their homes, Johnson and Ritchie were determined to avoid that fate.
Even though they’re both strong and healthy now, they recently remodeled their century-old house to make it more accessible, adding a first-floor bathroom with a walk-in shower with blocking for grab bars and a wheelchair-accessible sink.
“We learned from the lessons of our neighbors,” Johnson said.
Less than a mile away in southwest Minneapolis, Margaret Lulic and Bob Timpane took a similar strategy. They remodeled the 1921 foursquare they’ve owned since 1978, expanding the sunroom so it could be converted into a first-floor bedroom, adding a first-floor bath and remodeling the kitchen to update it and add more accessible storage.
They’re committed to their neighborhood and the connections they’ve made there. And they love their house. “We’ve invested a lot of ourselves in this house,” said Lulic. “We’re staying as long as we’re physically capable.”
The two couples are not unique in their desire to stay in their longtime homes.
Most older homeowners nationwide prefer to age in place, according to a 2011 survey by AARP. But many of today’s homes, even so-called “senior apartments,” weren’t designed and built to accommodate wheelchairs, walkers and physical limitations, according to Alissa Boroff, director of Access Solutions, Minneapolis, and a certified aging-in-place consultant.
“The overwhelming majority of people want to stay in their homes,” said Boroff, who works with individuals, families and contractors, “but the way we’re building homes, we’re not supporting their needs. There’s not enough universal design so people can age gracefully.”
That’s why some homeowners are taking matters into their own hands and transforming their houses now, so they can live comfortably in them later.
“It’s definitely part of the conversation,” said architect Jean Rehkamp Larson, principal of Rehkamp Larson Architects, Minneapolis, who worked with Johnson and Ritchie on their remodeling.
That conversation can take many forms, “from how to get a bedroom on the main floor, to how to do laundry, to a closet that can be turned into an elevator. It’s becoming more of a topic. People see the benefit of staying in their community.”
Lynn Monson, owner of DreamMaker Bath & Kitchen and Monson Interior Design, St. Louis Park, has seen so much interest in aging-in-place projects that he recently remodeled one of his showroom displays to demonstrate how a basic bathroom could be made wheelchair-accessible.
“Universal design is for everybody,” said Boroff. “But it’s getting more attention now because of the baby boomers. They’ve gone through some experiences, maybe a crisis with their parents, and think, ‘I don’t want that to happen to me.’ They’re doing things proactively, before there’s an illness or injury. It’s better to make changes when you’re not in crisis.”
For Johnson and Ritchie, knowing that their house is ready for whatever life throws at them gives them peace of mind.
“We can look at the years with confidence,” said Johnson.