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Designing homes to ‘age in place’ on the North Fork

Health care specialists, builders and architects alike have grown interested in an integrative concept known as “aging in place” and how North Fork residents can, through planning, design their homes to support independence at any stage of life.

Occupational therapist Sue McKenna, who works in the Mattituck-Cutchogue School District, has dedicated 20 years to health care facilities on the East End. She previously worked in OT at Peconic Landing, helping residents there manage their activities of daily living. In the school district, she works with children of all ages who have multiple disabilities. She also does private contract and consulting work with aging seniors.

A few months ago, Ms. McKenna became a Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist, expanding her range of services to embrace the concept of “building a home for life.” The CAPS program, created by the National Association of Home Builders, “teaches the technical, business management and customer service skills essential to competing in the fastest growing segment of the residential remodeling industry: home modifications for the aging-in-place,” according to the site.

Noting that baby boomers have a vast array of choices when it comes to potential remodelers, builders, contractors and occupational therapists, the NAHB website said that, overwhelmingly, seniors prefer staying in their own homes rather than moving into nursing homes. From task lighting to grab bars, the CAPS program advocates for actionable modifications within the home that can better serve seniors and preserve their independence. The program is sponsored by Lowe’s Pro.

“I’ve been doing home modification for a long time,” Ms. McKenna said, “but this certification was kind of a newer layer to add to that. I’m thinking of larger-scale projects. I’ve done bathroom modifications, kitchen modifications for years woven throughout my career, but this is more of thinking bigger.”

In her expanded role, Ms. McKenna serves as a resource for people who are looking to make major accommodations, helps homeowners plan and measure what they need functionally and refers them to appropriate architects and builders.

Careful planning is critical in constructing a new home or making renovations to meet changing needs, she said. Such planning can be integrated to heighten adaptability, accessibility, visibility and livability, while still maintaining the home’s appeal. Rather than make adjustments reactively, she emphasized, people must learn to be proactive.

“Some of these homes that you would see, they’re gorgeous and you walk in and you don’t even realize that it’s accessible to all,” Ms. McKenna said. “Most people recognize the need to adapt an environment because of aging, decline and disability … This idea is not only for the currently disabled or elderly, but for those who plan to stay where they live as they age, to be ready for whatever new circumstances life can bring.”

When planning for a total home renovation or smaller-scale projects, like a remodeled kitchen, bathroom or patio, for example, homeowners can call on CAPS professionals to help them incorporate designs that might be needed later on.

Making a home accessible, Ms. McKenna said, could mean installing ramps for future wheelchair use.

“The goal is to keep the look of the home beautiful and to not make it look like it was adapted for any purpose, but just welcoming and available to all.” This, she said, helps with resale value, too. The expense of these projects is always a big concern, but depending on design and time spent planning, there are ways to reign in costs, Ms. McKenna said.

The town, she said, is “very aware of the need and I believe they are trying to offer incentives, to expedite permits. There are grants. I know Greenport just got a grant. They were deemed a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community.”

Above all, she stressed, partnerships, collaboration and teamwork are what make the concept effective in practice.

To deal with the health care aspects, Ms. McKenna will go into homes and help determine how much assistance people need overall, making sure they can get in and out of their bathrooms safely, for example, and consider whether they need modified dressing tools or an otherwise modified environment.

Dr. Jay Slotkin of East End Geriatric and Adult Medicine, who chairs the safety committee at Stony Brook Eastern Long Island Hospital, encouraged Ms. McKenna to pursue the CAPS designation. He said that coupled with underutilization of hospice in the U.S. — and with New York being the state that uses hospice the least — additional elderly services and solutions are needed.

“The aging process, it’s happening really quickly now,” he said. “What’s happening is, a tremendous amount of money is being spent at the end of life. The fact of the matter is, if you look at the trajectory, given the aging population … by 2030, 2040, there [are] going to be more older people than younger people,” Dr. Slotkin said.

That, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is true and will require that additional services and solutions be offered for the elderly.

“It’s health care professionals, it’s architects, builders; it’s all disciplines that are working together,” Ms. McKenna said.

Photo caption: Occupational therapist Sue McKenna recently received certification as an aging in place specialist. She said it is critical to plan for the future, no matter the circumstances, and act proactively rather than reactively. (Credit: Mahreen Khan)

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