THE CARMEL PINE CONE / IN YOUR DREAMS
PUBLISHED JUNE 9, 2017
JOHN KITAYAMA’S mother, Keiko, was 78 last year when she took a tumble in her driveway, 50 yards downhill to her mailbox. Fortunately, she wasn’t injured, but she was frightened, Kitayama said, by what might have been. So, too, was he.
“My mother is still probably pretty far away from needing full-time care, so we weren’t really considering any kind of assisted living situation,” said Kitayama, a Pacific Grove resident whose mom lives near Sunset Beach in Watsonville. “But the incident did get us thinking about ways to make her living environment safer and easier for her.”
The solution he found was a concept that has been dubbed “aging in place” — retrofitting a home with safety features and modern technology designed to minimize the chance of an accident, including handrails, flat surfaces (as opposed to steps), motion-sensitive lighting, cabinets and appliances that are more easily accessed, roomier doorways, showers, and toilet areas for wheelchair or walker accessibility.
Kitayama began by hiring Lewis Builders, whose offices are at The Barnyard, to install a stainless-steel handrail the full length of his mother’s driveway. They also replaced steps leading out of her home with a ramp, and added a pole in her bedroom to make it easier for his mother to get in and out of her bed.
Next came the renovation of her bathroom, most notably the elimination of the curb she had to step over each day to get into her shower.
“It’s now a completely flat bathroom, with no walk-up or step down, so if somebody is using a wheelchair, or a walker with wheels, they can roll right into the shower,” Kitayama said.
As logical as it sounds, it’s often a tough sell, said Alan Kanter, an architect with multiple clients in Monterey County who has an Aging in Place certification from the National Association of Home Builders.
“You’re trying to convince people to spend money at a time when they’re sort of looking toward the end game, rather than the quality of life, and that’s often difficult,” he said. “But one of the things that research shows is that people are happier and healthier if they can stay in their homes longer. We try to achieve that by making their current living space as safe and comfortable as possible for the longest period of time.”
And while retrofitting a bathroom with aging-in-place alterations can cost thousands of dollars, the alternative — an assisted-living facility — typically costs much more.
“We just did a really nice master bath remodel and it cost $40,000, which obviously is a big investment for somebody who is retired,” said John Lewis, president of Lewis Builders. “But they’ve already done the alternative shopping and it’s going to cost almost $14,000 a month if she goes into an assisted-living facility. So, if she can stay in her home for another four months, they’re ahead of the game by $16,000.”
Kanter said renovation is often more cost-effective than selling a house and moving into a facility, particularly for older people who have a lot of equity in their homes. He also notes of the emotions involved in a move into assisted living.
“When a person moves into a facility, they get a room or a small apartment, and they get to bring a couple of framed pictures with them,” he said. “The rest of the memories get packed away, so they feel disoriented. Statistics show that they get ill more easily, and they get ill sooner. This isn’t connected to the money part — it’s a quality-of-life issue.”
And aging-in-place isn’t always about the elderly: People who have sustained major injuries often are in need of the same type of retrofit. Lewis said he began thinking about aging-in-place issues after sustaining a series of injuries while competing as a triathlete that led to four knee surgeries.
“I suddenly developed a deep empathy for people with disabilities, and began to realize how incompatible my existing living space was for a person with acute injuries,” he said. “I was doing a one legged hop into the shower every day, leaping over that curb, and I started asking myself why that curb was even there.”
Kitayama wondered the same thing, so after installing the front-door ramp, driveway handrail and bedside pole, he renovated his mother’s bathroom with the curbless shower, which includes a built-in bench and enough additional space for a wheelchair, walker, or caregiver in the future.
Both Kanter and Lewis note that many baby boomers are retrofitting their homes with aging-in-place improvements in anticipation of their own golden years.
“These are people who are still active and still vital, but they’re thinking ahead,” Kanter said. “They want to be involved in the design of a new home, or the retrofit of an older, family home. They also want to manage their investment in a careful and thoughtful way, as opposed to reacting to an emergency situation down the road.”
Lewis Builders can be contacted at (831) 250-7168. Kanter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (415) 980-0441.