Baby Boomers' Influence on Home Modifications Helps All Generations

Sherry Schwab CGR CAPS, HCS Construction Services Co

Do you recognize the songs "Blue Suede Shoes" or "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini?" If you do, you are probably an early member of the baby boomer generation, a generation that continues to affect the world's economy and lifestyle. Early members of this generation born from 1946 to 1964, are now eligible for Social Security which has implications for American politics and economics. This generation learned how to work hard from their parents who experienced the Great Depression and World War II. Baby boomers were born into an era of optimism and financial stability.

As a large population mass, baby boomers changed the status quo of many practices. They laughed at Elvis' "obscene" hip swinging and became fans of his music; adopted the Beatles and an international social consciousness for humanitarian causes; both fought and protested the Vietnam War; and shattered the corporate glass ceiling to enable women to have career choices and more equitable pay. And their impact continues as they reach retirement age and experience physical changes.

This generation also is called the "sandwich generation," which includes people who not only care for their children and grandchildren but also their parents when care is needed. Members of this generation are not easily categorized, as evidenced by their choices in how and where they live as they grow older.

Baby boomers are growing older "their way." When the National Association of Home Builders partnered with AARP and launched the Aging in Place (AIP) training and Certified Aging in Place (CAPS) designation in 2002, it was expected that within three years there would be an overwhelming demand for home modifications by aging boomers either needing changes to continue to live in their homes or for planning ahead. Almost 10 years later, the expected demand has not materialized because most boomers are still actively working and playing. The latest financial decline of assets has further postponed retiremen. Boomers still want to be productive citizens as workers or volunteers.

Perhaps baby boomers relate the word aging to their parents more than to themselves. It is time to modify our terminology and thinking. Designers and builders have long used the term Universal Design and many people are confused by the difference in terms between Universal Design (UD) and Aging in Place (AIP). A simplistic explanation is that UD is a broader consideration of making the most efficient choices in space planning for safety and ease for users of all abilities and disabilities. Whether tall or short, left or right handed, the space accommodates inhabitants and visitors of all ages. AIP is more specific in addressing home modifications to extend a user's ability to age and stay in their home until care in a facility is chosen or needed. AIP modifications i also nclude accommodating in-home care giving. In practicality, these terms are overlapping because illness or injury can occur at any age making modifications fitting AIP necessary. Add some principles of green building to the mix, and the end result can be a home that better suits general livability.

In terms of terms of being practical, what does general livability mean? Eradicate the preconceptions of AIP as hospital-like, manufacturers' designs are meeting the economic demands of boomer preferences: grab-bar designs are aesthetic and can serve as towel bars until needed; personal music and video devices allow users to listen at a preferred volume level without blasting everyone else in the house; task lighting in the kitchen and motion lighting at the entry help diminish sight clarity and safety; longer lasting light bulbs add safety with less maintenance and better output; video cameras at the entry and throughout the house add security and can be used to monitor children and elders; and low-VOC products lessen pollutants. Larger spaces for bathrooms not only look good but accommodate multiple users, including caregivers and equipment, if needed later. The list of possibilities is extensive. The goal is to make homes functional and livable for all.

As long as homes are our private retreats, we will want them as comfortable as possible. As our needs for what is comfortable change, we will adapt our homes to those needs. The large group of boomers, followed by their children, will continue to define those adaptations. Good design and modern technology make livability cross all generations. The concept of livability is one all home users, including boomers, can understand, accept and buy into.

Sherry Schwab CGR CAPS is the president of HCS Construction Services Co and the 1st Vice President of the Master Builders Association. Sherry holds both the Certified Graduate Remodeler (CGR) and Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) certifications.