Taking steps toward the future
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Jim and Barbara Smith easily climb stairs. They frequently garden, hike and bird-watch.
They're active, even spry, people, but they recently renovated their home in anticipation of a time when their mobility might be limited. They paved a walkway through their front yard to the front door, renovated two bathrooms and added a third senior-friendly bathroom.
"It was a huge project. We wanted to do it while we could manage a project like that," Barbara said.
After they noticed some of their older friends struggling a bit with the steep steps from their sloped front yard to the road above, they thought about constructing a pathway that would be easier to navigate.
They'd long considered the change and ruled out wooden ramps frequently installed for that purpose. Instead, they designed a paving block path that takes a gentle slope the length of the house and curves to the front door of their house off Hickory Road in South Hills.
"We were worried that the blocks would be slick, but they're not. We picked the ones with the roughest surface," Jim said.
The path looks like a landscape design element, but its surface accommodates shuffling steps taken with canes or walkers, in addition to conveyances such as wheelchairs, baby strollers and bikes. The slope is about 1 inch per foot.
"We didn't want it to look like it was designed only for seniors. A young family might buy the house someday," she said. They hope that day is far off because they built the walkway and renovated their bathrooms to be more accessible to allow them to stay in their house as long as possible.
Jim, 75 and a retired chemist, moved into the house in 1973 after he came to Charleston with Union Carbide. Barbara, 63 and a retired epidemiologist, moved into the house in 1986 when the couple married.
Meticulous planners, the Smiths talked for years about the front step/ramp conversion. He was reluctant to tackle the project until he tore an Achilles' tendon while hiking. Taking the steps was a challenge.
Space was tight in their cozy front yard, with little room for error. The Smiths are definitely "measure twice, cut once" kind of people. She used her grandfather's old surveyor's tool to site the walkway. They laid it out with flags, removed trees and shrubs, and moved cartloads of dirt before Charleston stonemason Ira Hughart and his crew laid the paving stones.
Barbara heeled in the perennials from her front yard flowerbeds to a space along the side of the house, then transplanted them back along the winding path after it was complete.
The reaction to their project has been gratifying. "We've heard from plumbers and meter readers who come to the house. They say how nice it looks," she said. A teenage pizza delivery boy even complimented them when he stopped at their house to ask directions.
Accessible inside too
They finished the walkway project in 2009 and looked toward the next project on the list -- the bathrooms. The 1950s home contained 1 1/2 bathrooms on the top floor and none in the basement. The main bathroom was so small, 5 1/2 feet by 7 feet, that the Smiths half-jokingly said that the only resting spot for feet when someone used the toilet was in the bathtub.
The footprint of the bathroom and half-bathroom, which shared a wall that couldn't be removed, had to remain unchanged. After they removed the original bathtub and realized a new one couldn't be installed in the small space and meet modern building codes, they put in a walk-in shower instead. They decided to build a full bathroom with bathtub downstairs. They had planned to add a bathroom to the basement in the future, but pushed their plans forward and incorporated the construction in the current project.
"We did three bathrooms and a bedroom at once and lived to tell about it," she said. While the contractor, Webb Plumbing of South Charleston, was already working in the house, the Smiths also had them build a closet in a bedroom they use as an office.
The senior-friendly accommodations aren't obvious. The stylish brushed-nickel handrails and grab bars on the wall and in the shower bear little resemblance to the industrial versions in public restrooms. The cultured marble shower and base are easily wiped down.
"We didn't want tile because it's hard to clean," she said. They settled on cultured marble after seeing it in the bathroom of her sister's house in Kansas and ordered the two-piece ensemble from a company there that shipped the unit without charge.
Bathers must step over a small lip to get into the shower. "If we ever get to the point where we can't step over it, we shouldn't be in this house anymore," said a very practical Barbara.
The toilets are ADA-approved and 2 inches higher than standard models, an accommodation for people with painful knee joints and hips.
The faucet handles are pull-style, rather than twist, which are easier for people with arthritic hands to operate.
The full bath downstairs was constructed inside part of a spacious laundry room, leaving plenty of space for laundry equipment and a wall for space-saving collapsible folding tables and hanging racks.
Webb worked with Wardens Kitchen and Appliance in South Charleston to update the bathrooms. The project took about six weeks.
Next, the Smiths plan to replace their floors with wheelchair-friendly wood laminate. The throw rugs they currently use, many of which she has woven, will be rolled up because they present tripping hazards.
The Smiths urge people to consider seniorizing their homes while they are healthy, even though the topic is not always comfortable -- some people don't like to confront old age, and don't even make wills. The changes can prove cost-effective if they enable people to stay in their own homes, perhaps with attendants, rather than move into assisted-living facilities.
"We have not tallied up the cost yet, but at $4,000 a month and up [for assisted-living facilities], if our renovations keep us out of assisted living for a few months, it has paid for itself," Barbara said in an email.
The new bathroom paired with an existing bedroom in the basement could accommodate a live-in caregiver, if necessary.
"We're ready for come what may," she said.
Tips for safe senior living
Senior Care Corner suggests the following tips for making a home safe and convenient for people whose mobility and agility becomes limited during the aging process.
General living areas:
Outside the home:
Reach Julie Robinson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1230.