Quebec City entrepreneur David Boudreault, co-founder of an app called CycleMap that locates the best bike routes around the world, is in his mid-30s and an avid hunter, skier and cycler. He recently rebuilt and expanded his home to accommodate his growing family, which includes three small kids. But despite being decades away from retirement and in excellent health, he and his architects, Hatem+D, designed a savvy way for him to age in place.
Currently, there’s a children’s play area on the main floor, hidden from the adjacent living room by a partial wall, yet brightly lit from a long, clerestory window. “It’s a great space to have, to shove the kids’ toys away when guests come over,” he says. After his family’s Lego-and-Play-Doh years are over, Boudreault sees the room becoming a study. Longer term, “In 40 years, if I can’t make it up the stairs, it can easily become a bedroom,” he says. “My mother told me to think about it. She said, ‘Make sure you have a room to convert to a bedroom, in case you break your leg.’”
Turns out, Boudreault (and his mom) are wise to think ahead. According to a 2017 study from the Canadian Association of Retired People (CARP), more than 85 per cent of Canadians plan to grow old in the homes they are currently in as opposed to, say, decamping to a retirement facility. However, according to a 2016 study conducted by HomeEquity Bank and Ispos Canada, 58 per cent of those nearing their golden years need to redesign their homes to incorporate the kinds of features – barrier-free washrooms, wheelchair accessible showers – that are senior friendly.
Part of what prevents people from renovating, though, is an aversion to the charmless, institutional aesthetic that’s too typical with elderly specific design. “Right now, more than 15 per cent of Canadians are over 65,” says Wanda Gozdz, a Florida-based interior designer specializing in universal design who frequently comes to Canada to train people pursuing a Certified Aging in Place Specialist certification, an international designation administered by the United States’s National Association of Home Builders. “That’s a huge portion of the population. And none of them want to walk into their bathroom at home and feel like they’re in a hospital.”
But, says Gozdz, because of the “silver tsunami” – the wave of baby boomers such as herself (she was born in 1949) currently at or very soon to reach retirement age – designers and manufacturers are increasingly trying to satisfy the market with aesthetically pleasing accessibility accoutrement. And in fact, many of those companies are based in Canada.
Promenaid, for example, was founded by retired Montreal architect David Reich to produce handrails that are as pretty as they are pragmatic. Finishes include black walnut and red oak; the surfaces are non-slip and they support up to 1,000 pounds of weight. Ottawa-based Invisia, a company led by professional engineer John O’Brien, designs and manufactures bathroom accessories, including a soap dish for the shower discretely edged by an aluminum bar that people can hold onto for stability as they wash their feet.
And Brampton, Ont.-based Savaria has engineered an elegant, glass-walled elevator that looks sleek, not bulky. Called the Vuelift, the cabs are sized for wheelchairs, but are raised and lowered with a system of thin cables as opposed to hefty hydraulics, so take up minimal space. The result is that homeowners don’t need to dig a deep pit in the basement, or install the kind inconspicuous mechanical box on the roof that is common with many elevators.
Brad Florin, a 55-year-old real estate developer, recently bought 10 Vuelifts for an age-in-place community of 10 townhomes he’s built in Fort Collins, Colo. (he lives in one of the townhouses). “Originally, the elevators were meant to be options for buyers,” he says. But his customers, whose average ages are between 60 and 80, all wanted them, so they became standard. “They just fit so well into the design,” Florin says. “They look beautiful, like art.”
Of course, the Vuelift isn’t cheap – Florin’s cost upwards of US$75,000 each to kit out townhomes that sell for about US$1-million – which points to another reason that people avoid age-in-place renovations: the cost.
Linda Kafka is a director at Caplan’s Appliances in Toronto and a graduate of Gozdz’s age-in-place seminars. In her late 50s, she’s now renovating the ground-floor kitchen and bathroom of her own bungalow and points out that although the renovations will easily cost her more than $40,000, the alternatives can be more expensive.
“I’m currently shopping for a nursing home for my 93-year-old mother,” Kafka says. “And those could run from $3,000 to $6,000 a month,” or $36,000 to $72,000 a year. Gozdz estimates that the kind of age-in-place abode Kafka is pursuing can extend someone’s ability to stay home for an average of a decade. But if Kafka’s renovations allow her to live on her own even for a year or two longer than she would otherwise, the savings still significantly offset the cost.
Plus, Kafka points out, it’s not only big-ticket items such as elevators that help. The small details add up, too, such as good, bright lighting that helps people see better; door levers that require no twisting action (such as Casson Hardware’s Cubo Cut levers that are made from warm-to-the-touch polyurethane that is more comfortable for arthritis sufferers) and faucets that you simply need to motion activate (such as the Sensate Touchless kitchen faucet from Kohler). “Some of it has nothing specifically to do with getting old,” she says. “It’s just about changing out the hardware and appliances to make it easier to use – for everybody.”