Millions of Americans are finding themselves the primary caretakers of one or more parents. This relationship can be immensely rewarding, but it is not without its stresses. However, some of that stress is eased in providing parents with a safe, comfortable place to live that preserves as much of their independence as possible and the dignity that goes with that.
Many caretakers are finding it preferable, when possible, to create living quarters in their homes or on their properties. Not only does it often foster a deeper bond and reduce time spent traveling to and from visits, but it can often be more affordable than a retirement or assisted living facility. And, depending on health and mobility, parents in need of childcare find that the on-site grandparents fill that role beautifully. Both grandparents and grandchildren benefit from the closeness it affords.
The ideal time to think about a so-called mother-in-law suite or guest cottage on your property is before you need it, though it is rarely ever too late. Such a suite — usually consisting of a living or sitting area, bedroom, bath and, particularly if detached, a kitchen or kitchenette — can serve as comfy guest quarters, a private domain for a grown child not yet on his or her financial feet, or as a home office until it is needed by the older parents or in-laws. If zoning laws allow, it might even produce rental income.
In-law suites come in as many varieties as the people who live in them. They can be converted garages or basements, additions or, as previously mentioned, a stand-alone structure. When some homeowners build, they design their home with an adjacent powder room and closet on the ground floor so that converting the half-bath to a full is made simpler. Because in-law suites should be designed for the present and the future, it is highly desirable that they be on a ground level not requiring access by stairs. If there are stairs that cannot be avoided, handrails on both sides are a must.
Before you begin the planning process for a remodeling, addition or building project, make sure you are aware of any zoning or building restrictions for your area. Then work with an architect and contractor to plan both for the present and, to the extent that you can, the future. Based on our aging-in-place design and building experience, following are just a few things to consider. Generally, if you follow the principles of universal design, you will have done the best you can do.
First, create no-step entries, flush thresholds and one-level living. Then make sure that doorways and hallways are wide enough for a wheelchair and a scooter to fit through. Today’s preference for the open floor plan means that, to a large extent, doorways are less of an issue.
Flooring should neither be too slippery nor the opposite. We have found luxury vinyl plank flooring, which looks like hardwood and is available in many colors, to be an excellent option. Non-slip tubs and showers are essential — with a lip-less shower being ideal — as are grab bars in bathrooms.
Advertisement Declining strength can become an issue for some older adults, we recommend that you consider levers rather than doorknobs, touch faucets and rocker-style light switches. The placement of light switches and outlets is also important to prevent stooping and reaching.
If vision dims, excellent lighting is essential, though it is good for everyone. And to ensure the comfort of individuals with dementia, avoid busy patterns in your decorating scheme, as they can be disorienting. A neutral backdrop allows the person living in the space to personalize. Speaking of personalizing, there will likely be items with which the residents simply cannot part when they move in with you, so plan for adequate storage.
In kitchens and baths, ensure that cupboards and cabinets are easily accessible. Some individuals lose height as they age, and tall cabinets are frustrating and dangerous. For older adults who may find themselves in a wheelchair or needing to sit to wash their faces or apply makeup, a floating style bathroom vanity provides plenty of legroom.
Natural light typically lifts everyone’s mood, as does access to fresh air and outdoor spaces. Ample windows and easily accessible patios are nice additions.
If you choose the cottage option, plan for a covered, well-lit, and level walkway into the main house. And we recommend that utilities be supplied separately from your house for flexible control and so that, should you ever rent the space, you can charge accordingly.
These are just a few of the many considerations when making lifestyle choices that are this critical to the health and happiness of your family as well as those of your parents who come to live with you.
Virginia Beach native and JMU graduate Chris Ettel, is founding partner of VB Homes. Ettel serves on the Tidewater Builders Association board of directors and is past chairman of the TBA Remodeler’s Council. Reach Ettel at firstname.lastname@example.org.