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Homes for the Golden Age

Adjusting a space for retirement age

With my in-laws visiting for a few weeks from South America, our house lately has been in full use. It’s pretty close to a capacity crowd.
Back home in Colombia, my in-laws are dealing with the opposite problem. My wife left the country years ago. Her brother recently moved abroad, too. The house their parents built for two live-in kids is now – except for the odd visit from children and grandchildren – an exceedingly empty nest.

Having completed some landscaping projects, my father-in-law is now looking inside. He’s mulling ways to make the house better suit its two present occupants, who are in their golden years.

Architect Ken Gowland, owner of MetroStudio in New Orleans, sees similarly situated clients all the time. Some are looking for new construction. Others want to renovate. He says the existing house for the aging baby boomer is a “missing piece” in the New Orleans housing market.

And the new crop of retirees differs from their parents’ generation in several respects.

To begin with, Gowland says, the aging boomers refuse to just fade away. “People are adopting a healthy and active lifestyle,” he says. “There’s a different fear of death with this group.”

The new retirees want to be self-sufficient for as long as possible, Gowland says; they have very negative views of assisted living. In the short term, that may mean carving out some space, say, for a small workout room with a TV. In the long term, it means creating an old age-friendly layout with open, obstacle-free spaces that are highly accessible and easy to use. It means keeping the frequently used rooms on the ground floor, with no stairs to climb, and maybe relocating the master bedroom through an addition or by combining rooms on the first floor. It means putting a roll-in shower, rather than a tub, in the master bathroom. The spaces should “foster independence, even in the face of disability,” Gowland says.

Location and site are issues to consider. The new retirees often want smaller, easy-to-maintain lots that are a short walk or drive away from amenities. They may want a swimming pool, but a small one. They don’t want to cut a lot of grass.

Economic self-sufficiency comes into play as well. Gowland points out that many retirees are moving to a fixed-cost lifestyle. Energy efficiency and low maintenance are high priorities. One approach is to set up two zones for air conditioning – going from one large unit to two smaller, more efficient units – with one zone for frequently used spaces and the other for less used spaces.
“The house has to work within the economics of retirement,” Gowland says.

Gowland sees a preference for metal-clad exterior doors and windows and generally suggests minimizing surfaces that need frequent painting or that could rot. On one recent project, he said, he used wood for exterior areas less exposed to the elements, and clad the house in corrugated aluminum everywhere else. He also suggests masonry, high-quality stucco and tile.

On several occasions, Gowland has designed what he calls “the little big house.” It reflects two realities in the new generation of retirees: They love to entertain, and, in our mobile society, their children and grandchildren often live out of town. More space is devoted to communal areas and less to what used to be the kids’ spaces.

The kitchen, dining and living spaces can be grouped together in an open layout, providing plenty of space for entertaining every bit the size of what you’d find in a large house. But other spaces, such as extra bedrooms for visiting family, are small, with little closet space. Or perhaps one guest room doubles as a home office.

Many retirees have “been carrying space in the service of raising their children or running their business,” Gowland says. Now they don’t need it anymore.

In the little big house, there is a lot less storage than you’d find in a family home. Most retirees, Gowland says, “want to go through a purge.” They have hung onto items from when their kids were babies. It’s time to get rid of it and free up space.

Frequently, Gowland sees a desire among retirees to get rid of formal spaces. “They’re realizing that the formal dining room never gets used,” he says, and it, too, can go to other purposes.

Those other purposes might include a home theater or space for regular tasks or hobbies that retirees enjoy. “They’re more focused on themselves now,” Gowland says. “The kids are gone, and they’re thinking, ‘What would I like?’”

Older couples have lived long enough to learn what they like and don’t like, Gowland says. Some might want to relocate the laundry space closer to master bedroom or make the laundry space bigger.

Furthermore, older couples have learned a thing or two about each other. Separate closets and his-and-her sinks or bathrooms tend to be popular. “They finally have reconciled the fact that they can’t share,” Gowland jokes.

He also finds that men tend to focus on getting one space to themselves. For some men, it might look like a Saints fan’s den. For others, it might look like a Yale professor’s library. “It’s a man cave. You can put whatever you want in it. At the end of the day, it’s a ‘Leave me alone’ space.”

Often, once the man of the house sees his space in the plans, Gowland laughs, “he basically drops out of the conversation,” leaving the rest of the design decisions to his wife.

The ultimate goal for everyone involved, Gowland says: “It’s a less is more approach, it’s not less is a bore approach.”

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