If Grandma showed up at your door with her suitcase for a permanent "visit," would your home be up to the task?

Nevermind the psychological adjustments that would be required of multiple generations living under one roof — physically accommodating an older person’s physical needs can be a challenge in a house that’s not meant for it, according to those who have studied the potential impacts of our graying population.

Although most adult Americans expect to "age in place" — that is, stay put in their older years — several factors are converging to make that prospect less likely for some of them, according to Elinor Ginzler, senior vice president for livable communities at AARP in Washington.

One factor, she said, is the economy: Retirement nest eggs that took a big hit during the recession will be driving older Americans to double up with their kids or other relatives. Plus, the rapidly expanding wave of multiculturalism in this country will restore, for many, the "old normal" of three or even four generations living together, a practice that faded during the 20th Century, Ginzler said.

It’s already happening, according to an AARP study that found that the number of multigenerational households grew from 5 million in 2000 to 6.2 million in 2008. Currently, about 11 percent of people 50 and older are living either with their older parents or with their children or grandchildren, and nearly a quarter of all Baby Boomers expect their parents or in-laws to move in.

"You wonder whether the house itself is going to meet those multiple needs," Ginzler said. "AARP would say, unfortunately, most homes would not."

Ginzler and many in the architecture world are champions of "universal design," which incorporates features and practices that take into consideration the needs of household residents with limited vision, balance and walking ability. But the design philosophy is more than that, Ginzler says.

"Universal design is not just about helping old people — it’s about helping all people, design that makes it easy to live, optimal to use for people of all ages and abilities," she said.

Universal design has gotten the most media attention in homes that are newly built or extensively remodeled. But there are simpler changes that can greatly improve the functionality of an existing house that must accommodate a resident with physical limitations, Ginzler said.

A major consideration: Rethink your rooms. "Examine the rooms you have, not what they were built for — like a dining room — and how we use it," Ginzler said. For many families, dining rooms (or even some living rooms) are used twice a year and might serve the multigenerational family better if converted, instead, to a bedroom or even a private designated retreat for the older resident.

"Privacy is a major issue," Ginzler said. "It’s so much more than being about the room the older person sleeps in." Living together is a major adjustment for all, and just having a get-away space for the older person can make the transition much easier, she said.

Other considerations:

1. Lighting. "When you start to look at lighting, you’re looking at design features that are critical to assuring safety and comfort," Ginzler said. "For older people, falls can be disastrous and a leading cause of death."

Look at something as simple as increasing wattage in light fixtures, she said.

"Then look at where the lights are placed," she said. "Where you have a stairway, light both the tops and bottoms of the staircase. Light the way to a bathroom that would be used in the evening. And you want task lighting in the kitchen for people of all ages and abilities."

2. Floor coverings. Minimize or eliminate scatter rugs to reduce the chance of someone tripping over them. If you must have them, they should be tacked down, Ginzler said. …CONTINUED

3. Stair rails. Look at hand rails by a staircase and consider adding a second one so that someone going up and down can hang on with each hand and walk with more assurance.

4. Too much furniture can create an obstacle course. This is particularly likely when households are combined. Take a serious inventory to decide what the multi-generational family really needs. The same decision needs to be made about the clutter and storage of toys, Ginzler advises.

Sometimes, multigenerational families decide to ditch both houses and start anew together, with a mutually agreeable existing or newly built home, Ginzler said.

Builders seem to be somewhat ahead of the population at large when it comes to thinking about multigenerational needs, she said.

"Our colleagues at the National Association of Home Builders have been reporting for awhile now that having two master bedrooms is more and more popular," Ginzler said. " In the past, that hasn’t been because of multigenerational living, but from requests by couples who want separate spaces."

If you’re building or doing extensive remodeling to accommodate the generations, Ginzler said there are three important considerations:

1. Include doorways at least 36 inches wide to accommodate a wheelchair, even if it isn’t needed currently, she said.

2. Include an entrance that has no steps, although that needn’t be the front door — just a way in that isn’t elevated and a potential physical obsacle, she said.

3. The ability to have first-floor living — not necessarily a one-story home, but a home with a bedroom and full bath on the main floor.

Beyond these, some construction-based changes can increase comfort or buy some insurance for future needs, Ginzler said.

1. Residential elevators can be expensive, but if you’re building a home, think about leaving a way to install one later if it becomes a necessity.

For example, ZAI Inc., a Seattle architecture firm, recently won a Livable Communities Award from AARP and NAHB for its design for a home that featured "stacking" closets on three floors that are framed, sized and wired for a future elevator.

2. Consider accommodating hands that have limited function by changing light switches to rocker panels. Switches that are placed lower on the wall can be more easily reached by someone seated in a wheelchair.

3. Arthritic hands also would benefit from door levers instead of door knobs. "But those aren’t just for older people," Ginzler said. "They make it easier to come and go when your hands are full."

4. Consumers worry that universal-design bathrooms will look institutional, but that’s not necessarily so, as manufacturers have upgraded the looks of products such as sinks that can accommodate wheelchair-users and towel bars that double as grab-bars, she said.

"There are no-step threshold shower designs that truly look like they came from a spa, with built-in seats and multiple shower heads," she said.

Mary Umberger is a freelance writer in Chicago.


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