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Original home for the ages

 

Del Buse celebrated his 85th birthday on July 6, 1998. His wife, Mary, turned 82 three days earlier. 

On the night before her birthday, Mary read entries from her 1936 journal – about how Del proposed six times, how they worried they couldn’t afford to get married during those deep Depression years, how Del won $200 in a movie-house lottery and announced: “Now we can get married.” Nearly 61 years later, the couple celebrated their joint birthdays in the new house, a 5,200-square-foot house on a bluff overlooking Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains in Washington State. 

The Buses were my parents and a couple years earlier, they had asked me to join with Seattle architect Ray Ernst and general contractor Floyd Erickson to design and build a home that would support, rather than handicap, them as they grew older. 

As their oldest daughter, I found the task fraught with perils – to help create an accessible, age-friendly home without the legal regulations and budget constraints that accompany most senior housing. 

Over dinner at the new dining room table, Dad teased Mom, saying he didn’t remember proposing so many times, that he always thought it was she who had proposed.  We all had a good laugh over a dinner of fresh trout Dad and his grandson had caught that day.  This is the way things should be. 

The subject of aging usually brings to mind retirement villages, assisted-care facilities and nursing homes.  Yet more than 85 percent of Americans want to live out their years in their own homes.  And with those over 85 the fastest-growing segment of the population, that’s a lot of people. 

Like it or not, however, those of us fortunate enough to live into our 80s and beyond may have to leave or longtime homes – not because we want to, but because the house itself forces us out.

Dark hallway 

It was the specter of this eventuality that prompted my parents to take a hard look at the home they had built in 1975 that rambled 100 feet from master bedroom to laundry room.  Huge overhangs shaded the windows and rough wood-paneled walls absorbed the light.  Without skylights, the hallway running the length of the house was especially dark.  The daylight basement was accessible only by steep stairs. 

Over the years, their lifestyle had changed: Now the dining and living rooms went mostly unused while the open kitchen and family room had become inadequate.  Most of all, they worried that the house’s systems would not keep up with their changing needs. 

With means to afford in-home care should they need it in the future, my parents were determined not to be forced into a nursing home.  Still, they wanted to live in a beautiful home, not an institution.  They asked Ernst to design that home on the bluff next door.  

The resulting house revolves around a large, open kitchen, dining area and living room flanked by a master suite with spa and deck, and home office on one end, and a guest suite with fully accessible bath on the other.  Two powder rooms, a laundry room and two-car garage with utility area complete the main floor.  A large recreation room with its own kitchen shares the daylight basement with a third bedroom, bath and powder room and three-car garage. 

Smart-aging home’ 

To the casual observer, the hill-hugging, cedar-clad house is a comfortable family home.  It is also what Rosemary Bakker would call “a smart-aging home,” incorporating the design principles she outlined in “Elderdesign: Designing and Furnishing a Home for Your Later Years” (Penguin, 1997). 

“In the process of aging, there is a gradual sensory and physical decline that all of us will experience, to a greater or lesser degree,” Bakker wrote.  While my parents were healthy and active, Dad did use a cane to steady himself and, as Bakker pointed out: “There is always the possibility, however remote, that at some point you may need a mobility aid.”  

Hence design principle No. One: The house is barrier-free with wide doorways and no thresholds.  The street-level parking court slopes gently to the front door, allowing entrance to the house without steps.  Inside, 36-inch doorways, wide hallways and large bathrooms with roll-in showers add to the spaciousness of the house and make it wheelchair and walker accessible.  An elevator links upstairs with down. 

“Good design means safe design,” noted Bakker, arguing that one’s home should provide physical support and environmental safety.  To that end, the design team collaborated to create a truly supportive environment that includes grab bars, railings on both sides of stairways and blocked walls for future hand-rails, as needed. 

All chairs have arms 

All chairs have arms to make sitting down and getting up easier.  Thermostatically controlled showerheads prevent scalds, while grab bars in the roll-in showers guard against falls.  The house is fitted with state-of-the-art fire and smoke detectors, electronic security systems and photo-sensitive night lights in stairways and master suite. 

Telephone – including one next to each toilet and in the elevator – put help at arm’s reach, as do the “panic” buttons that connect the master bedroom with a grandson’s bedroom. 

“Less acute vision is usually part of the normal aging process,” said Bakker.  “Not only is much brighter light required for proper vision, but the eyes are less able to adjust quickly from a light environment to a dark environment.” 

Ernst addressed this third principle of design – adequate lighting – in a number of ways, including skylights in hallways and interior rooms and photo-sensitive night lights that come on automatically at dusk in the stairway and master bedroom.  He aimed fluorescent light upward from soffits to fill ceilings with light and washed the walls and artwork from down-facing recessed cans. 

In the kitchen, under-cabinet fluorescent task lights as well as recessed ceiling cans illuminate work surfaces. Dimmable halogen overhead disks and under-cabinet fluorescent tubes light the home office.  Halogen fixtures fill bathrooms with light, while long incandescent, while long incandescent tubes light Mom’s dressing table mirrors.  Recessed ceiling fixtures supplement light from translucent glass wall sconces in hallways and other transition areas. (While the placement of fixtures would remain the same, today LEDs would provide much of the light itself.) 

Extensive light control 

“We have extensive light control,” said Ernst, noting that switches, many with dimmers, are placed in multiple locations so that lights can be turned on and off more conveniently. 

In addition, while clear hemlock paneling warms the vaulted ceilings in the living room and master bedroom, light-absorbing stone is used sparingly and walls are painted a warm cream color to reflect light.  Motorized roll screens on western windows reduce glare and heat without eliminating the view. 

Mom still swung a mean golf club but arthritis had taken much of the strength from her fingers making Bakker’s “minimal effort” test an important part of this house design.  That included not only installing lever handles on doors and wire-pulls on cabinets, but substituting single French doors for the heavy sliding glass doors found in most homes. Where easy-to-use handles weren’t feasible, touch latches were used.  Lights are controlled by rocker switches that need no finger strength to operate, and draperies and shades run on motorized tracks.  Single-loop faucet handles are used throughout. 

Finally, Bakker pointed out that color should be used not only for esthetic reasons but to accommodate reduced vision.  In this house, light-colored walls contrast with wood floors to show where walls begin; contrasting tile bands demarcate the shower floors; light-colored toilet fixtures sit on a slate-colored floor as a cue to prevent falls. 

My parents moved in the previous December and when the extended family descended on Christmas Eve, the house got a real shakedown.  As 5-year-old great-grandson Nicholas Weiss scooted his wheelchair through the wide front door and his grandmother rolled the serving cart into the elevator, no one thought to compare the house to a nursing home.  It is, as every good house should be, a comfortable, friendly family home.

 (Note: This story is an updated version of a story that was published in The San Francisco Examiner and Seattle Post-Intelligencer in July 1998.)