Some older Americans splurge to keep homes accessible

By Anne D’nnocenzio | The Associated Press

NEW YORK — Brenda Edwards considers the four bedroom ranch-style house where she has lived for 20 years her forever home. It’s where the 70-year-old retired nurse and her 79-year-old husband want to stay as their mobility becomes more limited.

So she hired an interior designer for $20,000 and spent another $95,000 to retrofit their house in Oakdale, California. She had the kitchen aisles widened to accommodate a wheelchair in case she or her husband ever need one. The bathroom now has a walk-in steam shower and an electronic toilet seat that cleans the user when activated.

“We felt comfortable,” Edwards said in explaining why the couple decided to invest in the property instead of downsizing. “We have a pool. We have a spa. We just put a lot of love and effort into this yard. We want to stay.”

Even if they wanted to move, it wouldn’t make financial sense, Edwards said. Their house is almost paid for, and “it would be too hard to purchase anything else,” she said.

Like Edwards and her husband, a vast majority of adults over age 50 prefer the idea of remaining in their own residences as long as possible, according to an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll. But staying put is becoming less of a choice. Some baby boomers and older members of Generation X are locked into low mortgage rates too good to give up. Skyrocketing housing prices fueled by lean supply further complicate the calculations of moving house.

Despite feeling tied down, a subset of these older adults have enough extra cash to splurge on upgrades designed to keep their homes both enjoyable and accessible as they age. The demand for inconspicuous safety bars, lower sinks, residential elevators and other amenities has given home improvement chains, contractors, designers and architects a noticeable lift.

Home Depot, the nation’s largest home improvement chain, is revamping its Glacier Bay brand to include sleeker grab bars and faucets that are easier to use. Rival Lowe’s created a one-stop shop in 2021 that offers wheelchair ramps, teak shower benches, taller toilets and other products geared toward older boomers.

“They aspire for bathrooms that exude beauty and elegance, with essential accessibility features seamlessly integrated,” Lowe’s Trend and Style Director Monica Reese said of the target customers.

Toto USA, a subsidiary of a Japanese company that introduced a luxury bidet toilet seat in 1980, markets the bathroom fixture to older people by saying it can help prevent urinary tract infections and reduce the burden on caregivers.

Toto USA research showed a 20 percentage point spike in ownership of the Washlet seats among consumers ages 46-55 between early 2020 and the end of last year. The increase indicates customers are thinking ahead, said Jarrett Oakley, the subsidiary’s director of marketing.

“The growing older demographic is more knowledgeable about renovations and planning for their future needs, especially as they prepare to age in place,” Oakley said. “They’re looking to future-proof their homes thoughtfully and with a focus on luxury.”

Wendy Glaister, an interior designer in Modesto, California, who worked with Edwards, reports more clientele in their late 50s and early 60s remodeling their homes for the years ahead. The typical bathroom renovation in California costs $45,000 to $75,000, she said.

“Your home is your safe place,” Glaister said. “Your home is where you hosted your family for holidays.”

The need to age-proof properties will become more urgent in the decade ahead. By 2034, people age 65 and older are expected to outnumber those under age 18 for the first time in U.S. history, according to a U.S. Census report revised in 2020.

But the issue has exposed a divide between well-heeled and lower-income boomers regarding their ability to remain in place safely.

Cathie Perkins, 79, a retired teacher who has chronic fatigue syndrome, had a local non-profit group modify the first-floor apartment she owns in Beaverton, Oregon. The changes, which cost about $3,000, included replacing her tub shower with a walk-in version and installing a higher toilet.

Perkins values her independence and said retirement facilities are beyond her means. “I am on a fixed income,” she said. “I have Social Security, and I have a pension.”

According to a 2023 analysis of the 2011 American Housing Survey by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, less than 4% of U.S. homes combine single-floor living with no-step entry, and halls and doorways wide enough for wheelchairs.

The Harvard center analysis found that 20% of survey respondents age 80 and above with incomes below $30,000 reported accessibility challenges, compared to 11% for those with incomes of $75,000 or more.

Jennifer Molinsky, director of the center’s Housing an Aging Society program, urges policymakers to address the shortage of affordable housing that’s a good fit for older adults.

“There are all these options for those people who have a lot of money,” Molinsky said. “But there’s a lot of disparity. There are people, through no fault of their own or for systemic reasons, who may not have the money to modify.”

Gene Carr, 67, and Sallie Carr, 65, have lived in their two-story, four-bedroom house in Henderson, North Carolina, for 27 years. The married couple had the money and vision to renovate in August 2022, hoping to stay in their home for at least another 20 years.

They hired builders to put a master bedroom and a bathroom on the first floor, both wheelchair-accessible. As the project neared completion a year ago, Gene Carr had a minor stroke that he describes as a “wake-up call.” His condition has improved, but the renovations make it easier to deal with ongoing balance issues, Carr said.

“We’ve got two pets that are old, and they don’t like going up and downstairs anymore either,” he said.

As retailers respond to the discomfort with aging itself in U.S. culture, Nancy Berlinger, a senior research scholar at the Hastings Center in Garrison, New York, who collaborates with Molinsky, encourages future home renovators to stay open-minded.

“We’ve all learned to love OXO Good Grips utensils and other simple, practical designs that work, so we can learn to love grab bars, too,” she said.