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Homes morph with age, lives

Nationwide more people say they want to stay at home into old age, and builders who make this possible are profiting.

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 24, 2002

Ofelia Canalejo has been living in her home for more than 20 years, and she has no intention of leaving. She's still healthy and strong, but at the age of 76, she anticipates a time when it might be hard to manage by herself.

Already she's encountered problems taking care of her 55-year-old son, Armando, who has Down's syndrome and uses a wheelchair.

"When we moved here, we were both much younger," Canalejo says. Plus, Armando was mobile. He could get up and down the steps to his bedroom and the townhome's only full bathrooms.

But when his condition worsened and he ended up in a wheelchair, Canalejo could no longer care for him. At the suggestion of a social worker, she tried putting him in rehabilitation centers and group homes, but she didn't like the way they treated her son.

"It was hard on me because I knew he wasn't being taken care of the way he'd be taken care of home," she says.

So she brought him home.

"You have to be a good mother," she says, simply.

She couldn't get him up the stairs, so Armando slept on a sofa bed in the dining room and made do with sponge baths in the downstairs powder room.

Then last year, she contacted Home Safe, a Tampa company that specializes in modifying homes for people who are aging or disabled.

Home Safe installed ramps leading to the front and back doors so that Canalejo could easily wheel her son in and out of the house. They also widened Armando's bathroom door so his wheelchair would fit through, removed the vanity and replaced it with a stylish pedestal sink and installed grab bars in the shower and on either side of the toilet.

For the crowning touch, they installed an elevator that leads from the living room to Canalejo's bedroom.

"I had no idea you could get an elevator in here," Canalejo says with obvious delight as she turns the key in the elevator so that it rises slowly from the first floor to the second floor.

Experts in the home building industry expect the kinds of renovations made in Canalejo's home to become more common as the country's population ages.

In a recent survey conducted by the American Association of Retired Persons, most people over the age of 45 said they want to remain in their homes as long as possible, even if they need help caring for themselves.

This concept of "aging in place" has contributed to the growth of the nation's residential remodeling industry, which averages $180-billion annually, says the Florida Home Builders Association.

"Remodeling is a growing part of Florida's residential construction industry, and in metropolitan areas such as Miami-Ft. Lauderdale, Orlando and Tampa-St. Petersburg, it's expected to grow even more as baby boomers move toward retirement," says Barbara Revels, president of the Florida Home Builders Association. "Professional remodelers will need to be sensitive to the physical challenges homeowners face as they age."

From 1990 to 1999, home improvement spending in the nation's top 35 metropolitan areas topped $843 billion for projects such as room additions, kitchen and bath upgrades, replacements of major systems, installation of ramps and elevators, adjustments and variations of countertop heights, and the creation of first-floor master suites.

In the Tampa metropolitan area, spending on remodeling between 1990 and 1999 was more than $5 billion.

This year, the National Home Builders Association launched a new certification program for professional remodelers. About 20 Florida remodelers were among the first 50 professionals in the country to receive the Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist designation at a Seniors Housing Symposium in Orlando on May 4. The CAPS program teaches remodelers how to renovate homes to meet the changing needs of owners as they age.

Home Safe's business has grown substantially since Glen Guloo and Ward Farley established the company two years ago. They've gone from a dozen customers a year to almost a dozen customers a month, Guloo says.

The staff includes a general contractor who oversees renovations and a designer who makes sure everything looks appealing rather than institutional.

"People will say, 'I don't want it to look like a handicapped place.' Especially the elderly," Guloo says.

Among Home Safe's most recent projects was a Land O'Lakes home that included the installation of custom vanities and a barrier-free shower in the master bathrooms, widened doorways, ramps leading from living space to the porch, and remote-control door openers and locks.

"We know the baby boomers are coming," Guloo says. "The population is aging of course. The problem is there is very little funding for the elderly to do this."

Government funding is available to adapt the homes of veterans and people with disabilities, but there are no such programs for the elderly.

Still, Guloo points out, modifying a home is much less expensive than paying to live in a nursing home or assisted living facility, which can cost several thousand dollars a month, only partly covered by Medicare or Medicaid.

"For $10,000 you can do a lot in your house," Guloo says. "And that's what it would cost to live in a nursing home for several months."

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