What is Design for Independent Living Anyway?

By Dan Bawden, CAPS, CGR, GMB

Name one thing you’ve been doing since you were born. I’ve got one: getting older! In response to the huge wave of baby boomers starting to retire, all sorts of products and services are popping up catering to the 50-and-over crowd. However, none of them hits as close to home as the nationally acclaimed CAPS program. 

CAPS stands for Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist. It is a construction credential that has builders, architects, remodelers, designers and even occupational therapists buzzing. Far beyond using universal design ideas, aging-in-place (a.k.a independent living) principles are sweeping changes designed to custom-fit your home to you and your family as time goes by. CAPS design takes your current and future circumstances into consideration. CAPS design principles focus on elegant, aesthetically enriching, barrier-free environments. These are changes that can actually increase the value of your home, according to some realtors. 

What is aging-in-place exactly? If you are like the majority of Americans you want to continue living at home in a familiar environment throughout your maturing years. Aging-in-place means living in your home safely, independently and comfortably, regardless of age or ability level. It addresses the need to remodel existing homes and design new homes, so that people can age in place and not have to move to assisted-living facilities as they age. Since the vast majority of homes we live in are not well designed for this, a movement in residential construction has sprung up to meet this new consumer demand. 

Boomers, who are 77 million strong and make up 28% of the U.S. population, are quickly catching onto this trend. The economics of aging-in-place modifications are a no-brainer. Moving to a typical assisted-living facility can cost up to $60,000 annually. The cost to widen the bathroom door, put in safety bars, and add a roll-in shower would typically cost about $6,000 to $8,000, but doing so is a one-time expense, not a yearly drain on your finances. 

In addition to the economics, consider the psychological impact of being uprooted from your community, familiar rituals, independence and privacy. The affordability of aging-in-place remodeling is made enhanced by the fact that medically necessary changes (such as wider doorways or a roll-in shower) are tax deductible if backed up by a letter from your doctor.

Too early to think this applies to you? Consider how many folks struggle with bouts of arthritis at an early age. If you fell and broke a leg, how easy would it be to get up and downstairs in your house? Perhaps you have aging parent or relative who is facing these challenges who may need to move in with you.

Construction and design professionals are taking advantage of the CAPS training across the nation. This designation is taught through the National Association of Home Builders in collaboration with AARP. CAPS connects responsible professionals with home owners who need these services on an ever-increasing basis. CAPS is a nationwide initiative and all active CAPS designees can be found at nahb.org/CAPSdirectory.

Look for the CAPS credential as a reliable way to identify professionals to modify your home or build a new one that is designed for a lifespan. CAPS graduates receive training about the technical/construction aspects and learn about the unique aspects of working with older Americans. They must also take formal business training, maintain their credential through continuing education and even must subscribe to a Code of Ethics.

What kind of changes are we talking about? 

A host of things! The overall goal is to make the home safer, with less maintenance and more barrier-free. Typical changes include the following:

Getting safely and securely into and out of the house. For example, 

  • Better outdoor lighting to get you from your car to the door.
  • Attractive ramps or a zero-step entrance for the home.
  • A package shelf by front door.
  • Handrails at existing steps and porches.
  • A front door with sidelight for security.
  • Fewer or no stairs. 

Changes in the kitchen for easier meal preparation and eating. For example,

  • Lever-handle faucets with pull-out spray.
  • Raised dishwasher to avoid back strain (a good idea for front-loading washers and dryers, too).
  • Rolling island that can be placed back under the counter.
  • Revolving corner shelves and pull-out shelves.
  • Lower, side-opening oven.
  • Pull-out cutting board.
  • Adjustable height sink.
  • Side-by side refrigerator with slide-out shelves and a water/ice dispenser.
  • Cooktop with controls on front.
  • Larger, friendlier cabinet and drawer pulls.

Changes in the bathrooms - the number one place for accidents in your home. For example,

  • Attractive grab bars in the shower.
  • Lever handles on faucets.
  • Slide-bar-type hand-held shower, for sitting or standing.
  • Shampoo nooks inset in the wall.
  • Curbless showers so that there is nothing to step over. These can be rolled into if a wheelchair becomes necessary later.
  • Tub and shower controls moved closer to entry point.
  • Anti-scald, temperature and pressure balanced tub shower valves for safer bathing.
  • Widened entry doors to at least 32.”
  • 32”-36” pocket doors.
  • Higher toilets with non-slam seats and lids.

Moving around within the house. For example,

  • Improved lighting with recessed fixtures in common areas and hallways.
  • Lever handles on doors and windows.
  • Lower light switches and thermostats; raised outlets.
  • Planning for a future elevator by stacking closets.
  • Adding blocking in walls for future chair lift at stairs.
  • Wider doors that accommodate wheelchairs and walkers.

These are just a few examples. Virtually all rooms of your house can be improved, even closets and garages. 


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