Though they're not exactly new ideas, a recently established nonprofit group hopes to give aging in place and universal design new national prominence. Over the past two years, the National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association has spearheaded the rapid growth in reverse mortgages, a home equity loan available exclusively to seniors.

Now the NRMLA is working to promote aging in place home modifications. Partnering with the National Advisory Council on Aging in Place, the group recently co-sponsored an Aging in Place Summit that convened academics and senior advocates. The event was held last fall in conjunction with the first ever Aging In Place week, a series of events the two groups coordinated nationwide.

The NAHB Research Center participated, opening its LifeWise universal design home model to public visitors. The association partnership also launched a Web site,, to provide consumers with information on how to add aging in place modifications to their homes.

Looking ahead

Courtesy Moen

Whether or not the NRMLA's marketing blitz accelerates it, remodelers can expect growth in demand for universal and aging in place design. In the 1990s, the number of Americans aged 45 to 54 grew by 12 million, and in 2011, the front end of that wave will reach 65. By 2020, the population of retirement-aged Americans is expected to grow by 75%. And in a recent AARP survey of respondents 45 and older, 83% stated that they would prefer to live out their lives in their homes.

Forward thinking companies are already angling for early market leadership, earning CAPS (Certified Aging in Place Specialist) certifications and trying to make potential consumers aware of their options.

Doug Nelson, the CAPS-certified president of New Spaces in Edina, Minn., says his company is conducting free public seminars on aging in place as well as devoting space to the subject in company literature. "We're trying to do a lot of public awareness," Nelson says.

Paulson's Construction in Howell, Mich., has also recently launched similar efforts.

"We're always trying to be on the cutting edge," says Paul McClorey, president of Paulson's, of his company's promotional efforts. "I want to put my company at the forefront."

"The demographics are certainly there," says Dan Bawden, president of Legal Eagle Contractors in Houston and chairman of the CAPS Board of Governors. By positioning themselves now, Bawden says, remodelers will be able to trade on that experience later. If companies can boast several years of designing aging in place remodels, he suggests, "it will be much easier for them to sell their services" when the demand intensifies.

Courtesy Moen

Remodelers say manufacturers, like Moen, maker of these grab bars, are moving away from the institutional look consumers often associate with accessibility-oriented products. Some remodelers who have already entered the aging in place market have found it's growing slowly. Most baby boomers, who represent the real growth potential, aren't ready to age in place yet. Right now, some remodelers say, they don't even want to talk about it.

"People are going in this direction very slowly," Nelson says. "I think the baby boomers are in denial."

Bawden notes that consumers worry "that if they make these kinds of modifications, their house is going to look like a hospital."

But aging in place and universal design advocates insist that fear is unfounded. Skilled designers, Bawden says, can actually turn some universal design features into elements attractive in their own right.

In the kitchen for example, universal design principles call for easily distinguished surfaces and borders to aid depth perception. In choosing colors and materials that provide the needed contrast, Bawden says, designers can create a visual dynamic they might otherwise have overlooked.

Manufacturers also have responded to consumer distaste for institutional-feeling products, says Jeff Immer, a designer at Schafer Brothers, Crystal Lake, Ill.

"There are lots of products out there that provide easier access and look like designer products," Immer says. Companies like Kohler, Moen, and Hansgrohe are producing more attractive grab bars, shower pans, and bathroom fittings designed with aging or disabled users in mind, he says.

Louis Tenenbaum, a former remodeler turned universal design consultant, says debates about aesthetics are unnecessary.

Bryan Bruijn

This kitchen, designed by Abbie Sladick, features a raised dishwasher and cabinets painted to contrast with the deep-cherry floors. "True universal design is a stealth product," Tenenbaum says "It shouldn't call attention to itself." Designers, Tenenbaum adds, should approach every design with consideration for the potential needs of residents and visitors.

That approach has proved successful for remodeler Abbie Sladick, who rarely discusses "aging in place" with clients. That might seem odd given that Abbie-Joan Enterprises, her Naples, Fla., company, routinely serves retirees aged 55 and up, and Sladick's designs often include raised kitchen cabinets and appliances, task lighting, and pocket doors.

"We don't necessarily sell that we're doing universal design," says Sladick, who is CAPS certified. Her clients, she says, "aren't ready for aging in place, but we know it makes good design sense."

Sladick determines the need for universal design features, she says, by assessing her clients' needs. In design meetings, however, she discusses these options in a broader context rather than confronting clients with their particular infirmities. For example, she built a drop down vanity into a bathroom to help a client who had trouble seeing when putting on her makeup. Sladick pitched the vanity as an ideal place for the couple's children to change a newborn's diapers. This approach, the designer says, not only smooths over potential awkwardness but really does offer universal benefits.

"Things we talk about like easy access light switches in bedrooms, single levers that are easier to operate than knobs -- we feel these are things that are useful for every single person that comes in."