Wanted: Homes to grow old in

Commission on Aging urges officials, builders to champion concept of universal design

By Patty Hastings, Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith

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When her husband’s health declined, Marian Anderson knew they needed to move out of their house in the Lincoln neighborhood. Monty Anderson, a Vietnam War veteran, was dealing with complications from Agent Orange that included congestive heart failure, rheumatoid arthritis and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). He had trouble walking. The home they built when they were a newly married couple wasn’t accommodating him as he aged.

“When he fell down the stairs, that was really it,” Marian Anderson said.

She knew she needed 22 feet of space in the bedroom for the bed, night stand, oxygen tank and CPAP machine. As she shopped for a new house, she started becoming aware of other helpful, if not necessary, design elements.

“More and more, we needed to find a house like this,” Anderson said of her current home in Hazel Dell that was built using universal design. The single-story home includes step-free entrances, wide doors and hallways, walk-in showers and higher electrical outlets. The Andersons bought the house in 2014, one of a couple of houses in the neighborhood built specifically for aging in place.

“You know who loved this? The movers,” Anderson said, gesturing to her wide entryway.

Monty Anderson died about a year ago. He got to live out his last two years of life at home, and that’s what most people want to do as they approach the end of their lives, according to an AARP survey.

Marian Anderson is the newest member of the nine-member Commission on Aging that implements the county’s Aging Readiness Plan, which was put together in 2012.

Last year, the commission held a speaker series on housing where they learned there’s a demand for this type of housing but not a supply. Next week’s Future of Housing Summit aims to bring together policymakers, nonprofits and people in the housing market to address housing solutions that benefit everyone, not only Clark County’s growing senior population. The number of people age 65 and older has doubled since 2000 and represents a growing segment of the population. The invitation-only summit has a wait list.

The commission hopes to intercept people who are tapping into Clark County’s hot housing market and convince them to build homes that accommodate all people, whether they have mobility issues or not. You could make the economic argument that it’s going to be better to help seniors meet their housing needs now and be independent, rather than burden society later, said commission chair Marjorie Ledell.

Building new homes using universal design standards “is really the only way we can accommodate the number of people who are going to need it,” Anderson said. It costs less to integrate universal design elements into new construction than retrofit a house after it’s built, she said.

Universal design is a somewhat new concept.

“Really good universal design is that you don’t even know that it’s been designed for a person in a wheelchair or a disabled person. You don’t know that because it just simply works for everybody,” said Chuck Frayer.

In 1971, when Frayer got into a car crash that paralyzed his legs and made him a wheelchair user at age 19, sidewalks with curb cuts weren’t even a thing yet. There are still sidewalks around Vancouver that don’t have curb cuts. Frayer, who’s the treasurer of the Commission on Aging and a panelist at the summit, helped form the Americans with Disabilities Act and has penned design handbooks. He retired from the U.S. Forest Service, where he worked to make parks and trails more accessible.

Often, he said, buildings are retrofitted to include wheelchair ramps or chair lifts that are ADA-compliant. They’re extra, or what Frayer calls “special special.” But a house that just has a step-free entryway is universal in that anybody can use it. There doesn’t have to be both a stairway and a ramp.

The Commission on Aging will formally present policy recommendations to the Clark County council later this month that include identifying tax credits, incentives or grants for homeowners or builders to create more accessible housing; ensuring all new neighborhoods are built accessibly with sidewalks that have curb cuts; improving existing neighborhoods, and developing standard blueprints that make implementing universal design easier.

The commission aims to raise awareness and ultimately increase the number of houses on the market with universal design. There isn’t a lot out there. It took Frayer a year to find his 1,600-square-foot home when he wanted to move from Troutdale, Ore. He and his wife looked in Vancouver and Portland.

Often the features that seniors need are the same features that younger people prefer, Ledell said. Lever door handles rather than knobs are easier to use when carrying groceries or kids, and they’re easier for people with arthritis. When kids get injured playing sports, a second-floor bedroom isn’t so easily accessed. Anderson’s daughter likes bathing her dogs in the walk-in showers.

“The fact that it doesn’t cost more is a huge selling point. It’s a paradigm shift,” Anderson said. “Once you start noticing and you start driving around neighborhoods, you see almost nothing has zero-step entry.”

Universal design also makes homes easier to visit. In Frayer’s neighborhood, there is only one other house he can get into in his wheelchair.

“When anybody has any kind of a mobility disability, a step or steps becomes a block. It closes you out,” Frayer said, adding that making homes easier to visit could prevent seniors from becoming shut-ins.

Ledell agrees, seeing universal design as a way to manage the growing senior population as baby boomers approach their 70s.

“OK, we’ve got this in front of us. We can look at it as a problem or we can look at it as an opportunity,” she said.