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Boomers Are Renovating With "golden Years" in Mind

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Toronto Star, May 29, 2003.

It can happen like this: Looking in a store window, you find yourself staring at a middle-aged woman who reminds you of one of your parents. But it's March, and your parents are in Florida. The realization dawns: That parental look-alike is you. Aging is inevitable, and DNA will do its work.

At least you're not alone. Canadians as a whole are getting older. In less than two decades, half of all Canadian households will be headed by people over 55. Like generations of oldsters, this bulging demographic group will want to grow old in their own homes. With a little foresight, that's a reasonable option, especially for the large number of homeowners who plan to renovate over the next few years.

Victor Helfand is the owner of Barrier-Free Architecturals, a Toronto company that sells senior-friendly home-improvement products, such as raised toilets, grab bars and shower seats. He's been in business for three and a half years, and he says that his clients increasingly include middle-aged people renovating with an eye to the future.

Jim Wolff, owner of Wolff Construction in Thornhill, is now installing grab bars in about half the bathroom renos he does now for boomer clients. That's a huge jump over the last five years.

Helfand says that more and more people are opting for shower stalls without lips because, in 15 years, the room may have to accommodate a wheelchair. Shower seats are also becoming more common. (Admit, even pre-old age, wouldn't it be nice to sit down in the shower to shave your legs or attend to foot care?) Other senior-friendly options include tilted mirrors (better for those in wheelchairs), or a "soft" bathtub made of acrylic and foam, so that a fall in the tub won't be deadly.

Cathy Solman is only 50, but when she decided to renovate the main bathroom of the Pickering home she's had for almost 20 years, she chose to add a grab bar, raised toilet and whirlpool. "The whirlpool isn't really that senior-friendly, although it's awfully good for relaxing tired bones at the end of the day. But the raised toilet and the grab bar are for safety and comfort--things you need to be aware of past a certain age," she says.

In the kitchen, Helfand suggests adding extra lighting in work areas for weakened eyes, and installing lower light switches and non-slip flooring. If money is no object, about $2,000 will buy you a mechanism that will raise and lower five feet of cupboards at the touch of a switch. "It's a great idea for seniors," says Helfand. "I certainly thought about installing one for my mother when I found out that she was climbing on top of the kitchen counter to reach her Passover dishes!"

Other tips include making doorways wider, eliminating thresholds, and ensuring that entry to the house is level. Faucets should have central controls; they're easier for arthritic hands to move up and down. Knobs that glow in the dark can be added later.

While adding the basics needn't add inordinate costs to a reno, Jim Wolff says not everyone is ready to renovate for their golden years. "I try to convince people that it's a good idea to install a grab bar, or at least lay down a piece of plywood under the drywall and tile," he says. "Some aren't sure. But it makes sense. A kitchen or a bathroom renovation can cost a lot of money. Middle-age people who have paid off their mortgage can spend money like crazy on extensions or refinishings. Why not make it work for you for a long time?"

Barrier-Free Architecturals is at 2700 Dufferin St. (at Castlefield), 416-783-5331.

Wolff Construction in Thornhill can be reached at 905-509-5048.