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Staying Put Could Depend on Modifications

Limited mobility doesn’t have to threaten independence at home.

Ken Bonner, an architect who is often asked to redesign traditional homes to be more accessible, watched as his father, who had macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness, battle against an inaccessible home.

“[My father] eventually died from complications from a broken hip,” said Bonner, who plans to design changes to his own home to facilitate “aging in place.”

In the battle to age gracefully, there may be no bigger turncoat than one's own home. Baby boomers and others who have a growing need for accessibility at home are discovering a lesson long espoused by people with disabilities: inaccessible homes can become prisons, or worse, deathtraps.

The term “aging in place’ reflects a trend among older homeowners who want to stay independent at home as long as possible by making modifications that prevent them from moving or entering a nursing home or assisted living facility.

BONNER WAS ONE of several speakers Monday, May 8 at a forum in Reston on accessibility and “visitability,” sponsored by the Reston Citizens Association (RCA) and Reston Interfaith. While focused on housing in Reston, the event included discussions about the broader implication of inaccessible housing and offered several mobility solutions to make life less difficult for the burgeoning senior population or those with limited mobility.

“My experience is you can make any house or living space accessible,” said John Canning, 56, of Reston, who spoke at the forum.

At first glance, Canning’s living room looks like any other. But what looks like a closet door opens to reveal an elevator. Canning, diagnosed with progressive multiple sclerosis in 1990, bought a three-level townhouse in Reston eight years ago. Soon after buying the property, Canning decided to retrofit the entire house in anticipation of using a wheelchair.

“I was still walking, but I was looking ahead,” said Canning of his decision. “At this point, I can’t walk at all.”

But now Canning easily navigates his motorized wheelchair through his home, which is a model of accessibility. It includes an elevator, widened doorways, accessible bathrooms, an all-in-one washer and dryer near his bedroom and a remodeled kitchen customized to his needs.

Canning’s efforts to adapt his home to his needs puts him, and many other people with disabilities, in the forefront of the aging-in-place trend, which hasn’t gone unnoticed by the home remodeling industry. “With the right contractor, you can do anything,” said Canning.

IN MANY RESPECTS, Canning said, people with disabilities have the potential to pass on valuable lessons — and often hard-fought gains — to the millions of Americans who desire to age in place.

“But if [people] want to age in place when their health starts to deteriorate, then they have to seriously think ahead,” said Michael LeJuene, a 48-year-old Reston resident who became paralyzed from the waist down in 1984 after a diving accident.

LeJuene, who has since become an advocate for accessible housing, said home modifications require thoughtful planning. “Make sure you check and double-check everything,” said LeJuene.

Reston, a 40-year-old planned community founded by Robert E. Simon, will soon experience marked aging pains, according to Mike Corrigan, RCA president. Not unlike other areas of Fairfax County, Reston’s population is aging, which will drive greater demand for accessible housing.

The percentage of the population that is 65 and older is expected to nearly double in Northern Virginia by 2030, from one in every 13 residents to one in seven, according to data from the U.S. Census. In Reston, it’s projected to triple from 4,100 people to 13,800, said Corrigan, relying on U.S. Census data.

Corrigan, drawing on data from other sources, said that this growing population will inevitably grapple with declining mobility. For example, he said, there will be three times as many people in Reston who have difficulty using stairs in 2030 than did in 2000.

As the demand for accessible housing increases, more and more households planning to age in place will be in the market for home modifications, according to Corrigan.

Even if some seniors never require adaptations to their homes, more and more of their friends may be unable to visit if home accessibility is not improved, he said.

Marion Stillson, a lead organizer of the forum, stressed that there are more possibilities for aging in place. “The message might be don’t give up or move away before you’ve explored whether or not you can make your home accessible,” said Stillson.

THE LESSER-KNOWN issue of “visitability” has long been a concern for Stillson, who began using a wheelchair more than 40 years ago after being injured in a car accident. She said she often faces barriers when trying to visit friends.

“I almost always have to be carried in,” she said, referring to the traditional step-thresholds in front of most homes.

Recently, at two political fund-raisers, she took advantage of a temporary ramp that scales two to three steps. Corrigan suggested that similar ramps be dispersed throughout Reston, either purchased by the clusters or by the Reston Association.

“And then when people have a birthday party or a wedding and someone comes who is mobility impaired, it won’t be a problem,” said Stillson, endorsing the idea.

Visiting friends has also been a problem for Canning, who travels with his own fold-away ramp to navigate steps.

But, “visitability” goes beyond getting into a home. People with disabilities often refrain from attending events at homes that do not offer an accessible bathroom.

“Almost nobody’s bathroom is set up for the handicapped,” said Canning. “So, I do struggle with that.”

Canning said that a friendly card game with friends started with each person in the group agreeing to host on a rotating schedule. “Now, we have it over here all the time,” said Canning.

“IT’S NOT ROCKET science to make things accessible,” said LeJuene. But there’s just little emphasis on it, he added.

Before moving to Reston in 2000, he spent months looking for a home.

“There was no [accessible] housing. I had to go with new construction,” he said.

LeJuene finally settled on West Market, a condo development in the Reston Town Center district. LeJuene, who closely monitored the design and building process, battled months with the builder to ensure his accessible unit was really accessible.

LeJuene said he discovered different-sized doorways for his bathroom and bedroom. In the plans, the bathroom had a wheelchair-accessible entrance, but the bedroom did not. “I could get into my bathroom, but not my bedroom,” said LeJuene.

People with disabilities agree it’s never too early to make some changes. “I don’t know how to get the point across, but everybody should be proactive,” said Canning.