In 2011, the oldest of the baby boomers began turning 65. This powerful market segment has seen its parents grow older and face physical challenges, which boomers hope to avoid. Jeanne Anthony, senior project manager of education and outreach at AARP spoke with REMODELING about baby boomers’ desire to stay in their homes and communities as they get older and how remodelers can help facilitate that. She presented “The Great Migration: Boomers on the Threshold of Retirement” at the 2012 Remodeling Leadership Conference.

Remodeling: Regarding housing and lifestyle, what have baby boomers learned from watching their aging parents?

Jeanne Anthony: Boomers see themselves as fit, younger than their chronological years, and understandably have a hard time facing that their own physical abilities will change, especially as they watch it happen to their parents. For the most part, they don’t plan for the future — their homes suit them now — and they don’t want to introduce features that suggest “aging” or needing assistance. And they definitely don’t want their friends or neighbors to see those features!

But they do recognize that many homes aren’t adequately designed to let people age gracefully and comfortably, without any stigma. When we talk about “universal design,” which is all about creating the kinds of environments people want — beauty, comfort, and safety — unfortunately, people don’t know what that term means. They don’t know how to ask for universal design features — they’ll know it when they see it.

A great example is the no-step entry. If you enter a home without a step, it doesn’t hit you that you have just benefited from a universal design feature. But it’s convenient for everyone — younger people trying to carry in packages and a baby or pushing a stroller, as well as for people for whom steps are difficult.

RM: The terms “universal design” and “aging-in-place” are frequently misunderstood. What have you learned about that?

JA: We’ve done consumer surveys to get reactions to the name “universal design,” and what we learned is that the term is not well understood or seen as very descriptive. To try to eliminate some of the confusion and to help consumers gain a better understanding of universal design, we think changing the terminology would be helpful. We’re trying to rename it “Better Living Design.” We think that’s more descriptive of the concept; it’s terminology people understand and will accept — who wouldn’t want “Better Living Design”?

We’re also trying to promote that these features are good for all people; from 5 to 85. A no-step entry makes it easier if you have a leg in a cast; a shower where you don’t have to step over a ledge to enter or even a handheld showerhead that can be adjusted for a child to use … all benefit a variety of people. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish.

Rebranding Universal Design

RM: How are consumers learning about “Better Living Design”?

JA: AARP has information and checklists on its website, but it’s key for remodelers to help promote universal design. People are looking for experts who can help them. It will also distinguish remodelers from the competition and help them serve their clients better.

New-home construction has declined dramatically and will take a while to get back to where it was. Remodeling is where the changes in homes will be taking place. We hear from remodelers that their clients aren’t asking for these features, but we would really like for the remodelers to be more proactive. They can play a huge role in helping us create awareness and acceptance by offering Better Living Design features. It goes back to what I said earlier about some of these features being transparent. If remodelers can proactively include them in their designs, their clients will truly benefit, and those clients will tell future clients about how great their new space feels.

For example, multiple-height counters that allow for seated work in the kitchen by either the cook or a child doing homework can be installed; position outlets higher from the ground, offer rocker light switches instead of toggle types, or suggest refrigerators with freezers on the bottom to your clients and make them aware of lever-handled faucets. Task lighting is a huge boon and is an easy, inexpensive addition to any kitchen remodel. We think homes with Better Living Design features will be more marketable overall because they’ll just feel better.

RM: What about the complaints of cost and attractiveness?

JA: We want to erase the trade-off, i.e. “I can [design this way], but you won’t get your granite countertops.” There are a wide variety of sources across price points that make features affordable for different budgets. And you are right, often, when people think of universal design, they think of hospitals or other institutions. This is one reason why we think changing the nomenclature will help. You can have something that functions as a grab bar but is stylish in appearance and functions as a towel bar, too. There are many features such as kitchen and bath handles that are both attractive and functional. All the major kitchen and bath companies and appliance manufacturers have products available. We are compiling a database to both serve as a resource showing products that are attractive and to demonstrate that Better Living Design doesn’t have to be institutional in appearance.

RM: Where can remodelers get more information?

JA: AARP has resources for consumers on its website. One tool we provide in select local communities is the Home Fit workshop, which helps inform consumers about different ways they can make modifications in their home as they are planning to remodel.

RM: So it’s really up to remodelers to help educate consumers early on?

JA: One of the biggest problems is that people wait until they are confronted with a crisis to begin thinking about updating their homes. And unfortunately, if they do wait it can be too late. We work with remodelers, interior designers, architects, Realtors, and other organizations to try and spread the word.

Remodelers need to have the conversation about how long [a person] intends to stay in their home and let them know that there are things the remodeler can do to make it easier for them, such as wider doorways and wider passageways, a lower kitchen counter so someone can sit down to chop vegetables. Movable — not fixed — cabinets can be installed under the counter. They don’t look different, but if you had to move them in the future then it would be easy to do so. You can meet the needs of people of all ages. Remodelers can do things to help homeowners have attractive and convenient features while helping folks maintain their independence.

Click here to read more from the 2012 Remodeling Leadership Conference speakers.