When news that the first deaths in America from the novel coronavirus came among a cluster of people living in a retirement village in Washington state, it should have come as no surprise.

Contrary to President Donald Trump’s suggestion that if you get sick, you should just stay home and hang around the house until you get better, that was not an option for those unfortunate souls. "Home" is where they contracted the deadly virus.

What if you could remodel your home and stay out of group living? It’s not as hard or as expensive as one might think, and Santa Fe remodelers know how to do it.

The spectrum of remodeling options for what’s called "aging in place" is wide. They run from the simple and obvious to the complex and costly, but all make sense. They also don’t need to be done all at the same time but can be phased in over the years.

With the average cost of high-quality assisted living at $80,000 a year, compared to in-home health and day care at half the cost, remodeling your home can save money in the long run.

Start with simple stuff. Strength in our hands weakens as we age, so change doorknobs to levers. Same with kitchen and bath faucets. Short handles that open casement windows can be switched to longer ones for more leverage. Switching to LED lightbulbs, with super-long lives, saves energy and keeps the ladder in the garage.

The next thing to go is our equilibrium and depth perception. A simple fall can break bones. Eliminate elevation changes, even as short at 4 inches, like from a portal to a sidewalk. As our stride shortens and shuffling begins, get rid of rugs and carpets in favor of smooth, level surfaces. Indoor air quality also is improved; smooth floors are easier to keep clean.

Analyze furniture arrangements to make sure solid, stable pieces along traffic patterns are within reach. Installing handrails down long hallways can be done in an afternoon. If we do fall and break a hip, we might need a wheelchair or walker, which means doors to bedrooms and bathrooms may need to be widened. Standard bedroom doors are 30 inches wide, but 36 inches is the optimal width.

There are also not-so-simple fixes, but remodeling professionals are up for the task.

If a wheelchair becomes a permanent reality, remodeling kitchens and baths will be necessary. Being able to “drive under” a bath vanity, kitchen sink or stovetop can be accomplished. Moving plugs and switches from backs of countertops to sides of cabinets can be done. Installing higher toilets surrounded by grab bars, changing tubs to “drive in” showers with grab bars and making sure turning radiuses are wide enough to maneuver are still cost-effective changes.

If it comes to the point where constant care is required, changing an area of the home to an efficiency apartment for live-in caregivers might still be cheaper than moving into an assisted living facility.

If our homes are big enough, and many Santa Fe homes are, we can even carve out enough space for a completely remodeled two-bedroom accessory dwelling unit designed for maximum accessibility. To pay for the remodeling project, the balance of the home can be rented to a young family struggling to find an affordable home.

Moving into assisted living is never an easy decision for an individual or their families. The physical nature of one’s existing home and its accessibility should not be the driving factor in that decision. When viruses spread and our doctors advise us to stay home and get well, it’s nice to have our own homes to go back to.

Kim Shanahan is a longtime Santa Fe builder and former executive officer of the Santa Fe Area Home Builders Association.

(3) comments

Josephine Levy

Universal design and accessible dwellings are always desirable and can extend the time we live in our own homes. However, most people who live in assisted living need help with a range of ADLs (activities of daily living). These include eating, dressing, using the toilet, transferring (getting up from a chair), and bathing safely. When these needs emerge--and many of us are quite skilled at denying these needs--assisted living is a more supportive environment. It can also provide a level of social engagement that living alone, especially when driving is no longer advisable, cannot provide. Hiring a live-in caregiver is quite expensive, and 24-hour professional in-home care is typically much more expensive than assisted living in a community setting. My hope for older adults --myself included--would be for us to be able to base our decisions not on fear, which keeps us from moving forward even when desirable--but on an understanding of our needs and the most fitting environment to support those needs.

Rachel Thompson

I don’t know how to edit my comment above but the word confidently was supposed to be competently.

Rachel Thompson

This is a great article and New Mexico already has an advantage in this way because the majority of homes are a single story. But a major problem is… Well, see the article on the same page about the shortage Of construction professionals. It is almost impossible to find skilled carpenters in Santa Fe. Anyone who’s good is getting paid big dollars to work for a builders of luxury homes, and often the people who are available are the same people who say they can also do plumbing and electrical and landscaping… meaning they’re very eager to work but they don’t always have the skills they claim to have.

Try, for example, to find someone who can come and install grab bars at a reasonable price and ensure that they are attached properly to shower walls and without doing damage to tile work. It can be really hard to find people who can come and confidently do these small modifications that will make such a difference. I think there’s an opportunity for more than one person to start a business doing this, but they have to be good.

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