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Why 55-Plus Housing Design Matters

A step-by-step strategy to providing housing that is appropriate for the 55-plus crowd.

Why 55-Plus Housing Design Matters

Despite the hurdles we face, the housing industry is ripe with opportunity. It’s no secret anymore that the 55-plus market is among the most lucrative. This has led to many builders following the money and jumping in with both feet. But perhaps we need to take a moment to truly understand what 55-plus housing entails.

Housing design matters in all walks of life, but it is especially important in homes for the 55-plus buyer. There are two schools of thought that I have observed with many builders, both of which miss the mark. 
Housing design matters in all walks of life, but it is especially important in homes for the 55-plus buyer. There are two schools of thought that I have observed with many builders, both of which miss the mark. 

  1. First, are 55-plus designs underplayed as simply a ranch plan with big doors.
  2. Second, are designs that make the home feel like a nursing home, turning off potential buyers who are seeking a better lifestyle by making them feel old.

A Balancing Act

As a home buyer, entering the 55-plus market is both an uplifting and frightening stage of life, resulting in two conflicting emotions that make the design even more tricky and important. There are also gradual and subtle signs of aging that need to be acknowledged and addressed as we grow old. Great 55-plus design should simultaneously and seamlessly celebrate this stage of life, mitigate fears, and conquer the pesky signs and symptoms of aging.

Enhancing the Good

This milestone represents reaching a period of freedom—independence from raising children, care-taking for aging parents, sometimes ending the 40 hour work week. Buyers may also discover the freedom to live where they choose – whether being close to the grandkids, shopping or the health clinic. This new-found freedom means more time to entertain, take up gourmet cooking or adopt a surrogate furry four-legged grandkid to pamper and spoil.

How do we celebrate this milestone? With friends and family, of course! Since staying active and engaged with others keeps people healthy, our homes need to be designed to encourage that. We start with larger kitchens with all of the features. We upgrade the outdoor living spaces so that owners and guests are invited to gather outside. Contrary to some preconceived notions, these buyers often select the optional second floor spaces for the grandkids’ play room or bedrooms.

Let’s not forget providing for room for pets, including places where the bowls won’t cause tripping, places for them to sleep, and to bathe.

Mitigating the Fears

While this is an exciting time in life, it’s important to be aware of the fears that these buyers may be experiencing – some minor and some major.

Minor Fears: 
What if I over-downsize? 
How many bedrooms do I really need?
How often will the kids and grandkids come to visit? 
Can I even afford to move? 
Can I afford not to move from my current big house? 
Do I really want to move away from the friends I’ve made here?

This uncertainty can gridlock potential buyers, contributing to the higher percentage of shoppers (47%) than buyers (37%) in the market, according to Erik Heuser, chief strategy officer at Taylor Morrison. To close that gap, we need more compelling plans and lifestyle solutions that make them want to buy the home and downsizing and moving worth the hassle.

Major Fears:
Is my home equipped for me to age in place? 
If I fall and break my hip or need knee replacement, can I sill function in my home? 
Will I be wheelchair bound in the future? 
What happens when my spouse dies? Will I have to move? Will I be too lonely if I stay?

Many 55-plus communities have clubhouses and activity directors to keep their residence active and engaged in the community. This can be an important component for retirees who aren’t accustomed to having to fill their free time.

There are design basics to help overcome some of these fears. Wider doors will allow easy access with a walker or a wheel chair. Provisions for grab bars in showers and next to the toilet are also important. Many builders don’t want to show the grab bars in their models, for fear it will make their buyers feel old. However, the aesthetics of grab bars has improved immensely, they are less obtrusive and multi-functional. Provisions for grab bars not only includes adding blocking in the wall, it also means making sure, as in the case of the toilet room, the room is large enough to receive grab bars on both sides, which makes the space 6” narrower.

55-plus is not the same as ADA

This is a question I am asked often: “Should I be following ADA-compliant designs for my house?” The toilet is just one example of where ADA can actually inhibit most homeowners. The grab bar behind the toilet is not as helpful as having grab bars on both sides of the toilet. The dedicated toilet room is not ADA-compliant, but it is a far more convenient design and affords homeowners a little extra privacy. To put it frankly, no one looks good sitting on the toilet.

Subtle Symptoms of Aging

We can talk about the obvious no-threshold entries and slip-resistant floors, but there are the more subtle symptoms of aging that need to be addressed - ones that tend to be overlooked in the industry, let alone the very buyers we are trying to win over.

Eyesight

With age, the lens eyes thickens and allows less light to pass through it. Because the thickening is gradual, many aren’t aware of it. They just assume it’s darker. At first, this is simply an inconvenience, experiencing a double whammy of having to use the bathroom in the middle of the night more often and having difficulty finding the way without having to turn on a light and waking their partner.

Over time, the thickening of the lens escalates to become a safety issue. Imagine coming home at night only to discover your garage light is out. This is annoying to anyone, but downright hazardous to a senior who now may smack their head on a shelf or trip over unseen objects or steps. Falls are the number one reason for hospitable visits – for all ages. But when a 70-year-old woman falls, there is a greater risk for bone breakage because of osteoporosis.

This is why optimized natural and artificial lighting is critical for 55-plus buyers. The best solution is to layer the lighting. Include step lights at the garage entrance, along any staircase and in the bathrooms. Consider both ambient lighting as well as task lighting in kitchens and laundry rooms.

Snoring

Snoring is another symptom of aging that many buyers won’t openly share. Three things contribute to snoring: aging, weight gain, and alcohol. The number of anti-snoring devices on the market today are staggering. As hard as inventors try, I don’t think we’re going to end snoring any time soon.

A design solution? Provide a snore room near the master bedroom allowing one partner a place to escape to a quieter place to get necessary sleep.

Diminished Core Strength

Our core strength, like eyesight, diminishes over time – especially without devoted exercise. One big problem with a diminished core is a lack of balance. Even worse is the ability to catch yourself when you start to fall, making tripping on loose rugs or electrical cords a real danger.

The debate on whether stairs are acceptable in 55-plus design is long and drawn out. Experience has proven that not only are two story homes acceptable, they also tend to sell very well for buyers with visiting grandchildren or who simply want a bonus room to escape to from time to time. However, we need to acknowledge that stairs can be treacherous to our aging population, even if they have adequate strength to climb the stairs.

I advocate having handrails on both sides of the stairs for many reasons including arthritis in one hand and walking up and down the stairs while carrying something. Imagine carrying something downstairs when the doorbell rings. Suddenly the dog rushes down the stairs to bark at the possible intruder and inadvertently knocks down their owner. This is problematic for anyone, but a lack of core stability and thus their balance makes this scenario even more dangerous for 55+ buyers.

Aching Backs

Backs are prone to issues as we age, making the simple act of bending down painful. This can be from arthritis, weight or just too much physical wear and tear. Those entering the 55-plus market likely aren’t thinking about it, but there are simple things that can be done ahead of time to minimize the bending. 

  • Outlets mounted at the same height as light switches: Hotels have mastered this concept when they provide bedside outlets above the nightstand, so their patrons can easily plug in their electronic devices. Raised outlets minimize bending down to plug in the vacuum cleaners or other electronic devices.
  • Drawer or raised dishwashers: Minimizing bending down to load and unload dishes.
  • Central vacuum electronic dust pans: Gives buyers the ability to sweep dog hair directly into the central vacuum system without having to bend down to pick up the dust pan.

In summary, the strategy for successful 55-plus housing isn’t simply “Build it and they will buy it.” Some buyers may be downsizing, but none of them want to be downgrading. If a home buyer’s first impression when they walk into your house is “Wow I’m old,” they will simply move onto the next community that does it better or not move at all. Great 55-plus design addresses the fact that homeowners will grow older without making them feel old. 

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