Saturday, June 7, 2014

Aging at home: does it have to be an uphill climb?

Baby Boomers remain the largest generation by volume of any recorded in the history of the United States.  This label, part of common parlance from coast to coast, imposes artificial bookends upon a group of people whose only real commonality is that they were conceived in the years following World War II—a spike in the birthrate that gives them gravitas, almost tautologically, again thanks to their formidable numbers.  They have shaped everything, particularly as they grew up and passed legal voting age, but then they continued to do so as they amassed wealth and earned a previously inconceivable purchasing power.  And their influence will undoubtedly continue in their wake after the last of them dies out.

Grim as it may be to talk about death, the first baby boomer became eligible for social security on October 15, 2007 (turning 62 on January 1, 2008), and, while a generation widely characterized by ambition and upward mobility is likely to defer retirement, eventually old age will catch up with it.   The widespread proliferation of extended care facilities, senior communities, and the younger “active adult” subdivisions is evidence that a sizable portion of the population is demanding a residential typology that scarcely existed 50 years ago, when most people were only expected to live a half dozen years after retirement.

But how do we respond to those who have no desire to leave the places they have called home for most of their adult lives?

A house like this, in the working class Detroit suburb of Lincoln Park, downriver from the Motor City, may at least shed a flicker of light on what’s happening.  And, as is often the case, I’m making assumptions with little more than my own peepers: I have no idea the age or family make-up of the folks who call this tidy bungalow home.  But the outside evidence suggests they are contending with the forces that father time imposes on our muscles, bones and joints.

The contraption leading to the front door should make it clear what I’m suggesting: it’s a wheelchair ramp.  And it’s an elaborate one.

More often than not, they have to be elaborate. Homes dating from this time period (between the 1920s and 1940s, I’d suspect) rarely accommodated people who depended on wheelchairs for mobility, partly due to lack of any organized advocacy on behalf of disabled people and heavily due to lack of demand.  Not only were people with access or functional needs less likely to expect navigability or self-sufficiency, the world simply had fewer of them around.  The life cycle simply didn’t mesh well with disabilities, and disabled people likely depended on either family or hired caretakers.  Times have changed, and homes with an extensive ramp like this one in Lincoln Park have grown increasingly common.

Aside from the physicality of the house itself, the space around it could pose a huge challenge.  Wheelchairs require a very gentle grade change of 1:12.  Otherwise, most users don’t have the strength to apply the needed torque to proceed up the slope, or their caretakers may be unable to push.  While motorized chairs can mitigate against topography to some extent, they are undoubtedly more expensive and may not be desirable for those who have enough upper-body capability to wheel themselves around.  Thus, to get the ramp they need to their front doors, many homeowners must sacrifice a good part of the front yard.

What’s interesting about the house in Lincoln Park is that it ostensibly has enough room, even though it rests on what would typically be a small parcel in a relatively dense, walkable pre-war neighborhood. While most of the homes in Lincoln Park claim narrow lots, this homeowner has ample space for a ramp on the one side.

But why would there be such a gap between homes, when the normal configuration for neighborhoods from this time period is much closer-knit, with minimal side yards?

It would appear that this modest little yellow house used to have a neighbor.  Just beyond the handicapped parking sign—to its left in the photo above—is a curb cut, with a paved strip wide enough for a car.  It’s hard to imagine any other purpose for that than a driveway that once led to a garage…to a garage that once served a house.  The house almost definitely was demolished, and enough of the pavement was removed to clear the ground for fresh turf.  All that remains is the strip between the sidewalk and the curb cut.

It’s neither possible nor reasonable to postulate that the owners of the yellow house bought the adjacent property, then demolished it, in part to expand their yard and to provide enough room for the handicapped ramp.  That former home could have befallen a million different fates.  But unlike Detroit, where demolished homes have routinely induced gaps in the streetscape, a lacuna such as this is rare in Lincoln Park.  And the generous side yard addresses what otherwise could have been a great enough engineering challenge to preclude this family’s ability to remain in their house.

Sweeping wheelchair ramps in front yards may not jump out to the unattuned eye—after all, we’ve seen the proliferation of accessible commercial and public buildings over the two decades since ADA passed—but it’s easy to surmise that their numbers are growing.    After all, those baby boomers may soon start facing the mobility impairments that accompany old age, and few houses, both old and new, meet the sundry requirements that allow households to age in place.  Aside from replacing all stairs with ramps, wheelchair friendly structures require significant additional retrofits.  Hinges must allow doors to pivot across a broader space in order to accommodate the gentler turn radii of wheelchairs.  Cabinets cannot be placed too high.  Knobs on stovetops—and the burners themselves—can’t be out of reach from a seated position.  Toilets need ample room and often bars for leverage to allow ingress and egress.  The operability of the most mundane household objects no longer seems so benign.   And I can’t begin to guess how the wheelchair-dependent person at this Lincoln Park house manages to get up to the next floor.   It may be little more than an attic or auxiliary space.  But if the bedroom’s up there, it’s probable that the family had to retrofit a room on the first floor to serve as the bedroom.  And since many older homes only have one bathroom, that spatial arrangement could also pose a huge problem if the loo is on what we Americans call floor two.

“Aging in place” may soon become a household term as this populated generation faces access and functional needs in an array of houses not built to accommodate them.  Americans with Disabilities Act standards are already ubiquitous, and HUD provided accessibility guidelines for affordable housing, coincident to the passage of ADA.  Could this cohort’s demand for ramps and broad bathrooms reach such an apex that it actually hurts the overall market for conventional housing?  Will the younger, less populous, able-bodied generation seek out a glut of homes entering the market?  Perhaps the boomers will resort to the tactics on display in these photos.

A colleague at a recent conference cogently observed that we rarely see sweeping ramps to front doors in high-income neighborhoods.  They dominate blue-collar areas.  A variety of cultural shifts over the next decade could corroborate if the aging in place phenomenon is socioeconomically driven, but it’s easy to speculate now whether such an assertion is true.  More affluent neighborhoods use their homeowners associations to create covenants attached to the deeds, which can restrict major modifications that could vitiate the aesthetics of the community.  These covenants may therefore require homeowners to find subtler and more expensive means of solving mobility problems.  Affluent homeowners may amortize their loans at a slightly earlier point in life, giving them more leverage in selling and moving to an appropriately suited domicile after retirement—one that better allows them to age in place than the one they enjoyed during their career years.  Lastly, affluent adults generally boast superior access to doctors and preventative care specialists, meaning they could be slightly less likely to face mobility impairments caused by common conditions such as stroke, since heart disease or cardiovascular-related ailments routinely affect lower-income people more often and at younger ages.

Regardless of how the baby boomers’ silver tsunami shapes future sociological studies, a fixed asset such as real estate will have to adapt to our morphing, creaky bodies.  The development world’s response to an as-of-yet undetermined demand shift could exert a profound impact on the shape and appearance of residential communities.  And we won’t always be able to bulldoze the home next door to make way for a new entrance.


James said...

Affluent might also better afford handicap accessible cars and motorized wheelchairs or wheelchair lifts which would replace long, unsightly ramps.

AmericanDirt said...

Thanks, James, for the comment. I'm sure those are additional factors for why you don't see wheelchair ramps in the front yards in wealthier neighborhoods.

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