Photo By: Photos by Elliott Burr/Town Crier
As executive director at Pilgrim Haven, Los Altos resident Karen Jenney used to make senior care her business. Now retired, she’s turned an eye to her own home – which changes would make it a safer and more comfortable space in which to age and welcome guests of all physical sizes and limitations?
Jenney redid a bathroom to add a wide, walk-in shower, variable-height showerhead, stylish grab bars and wall studs that can accommodate more modifications down the line.
“Who knows what the future will hold? It may just never be needed, but on the other hand, I kind of like the results,” she said. “We’ve got a bathroom now really for all ages. I just had my grandchildren here and they loved it.”
The Los Altos Senior Center polled residents last year and found that a majority of seniors still live in their own homes, most with a partner. The vast majority hoped to stay in their current homes as they aged – “as long as my spouse and I can safely and comfortably remain in our home,” as one respondent put it. But nearly 30 percent said they could use information on how to adapt their current home as they age.
“People don’t realize, probably until they’re way into needing it yesterday – so that’s a problem,” said Jenney, who now volunteers as chairwoman of the city’s Senior Commission. “If you’re thinking of remodeling, at least put this in your thoughts – what could I do that down the road I could use?”
Mike Stanley, 66, has used a wheelchair since he was 5 years old, but many accessibility modifications to his Los Altos home hadn’t interested him before he started contemplating old age.
“Until I started getting older, I was fortunate that I’m able to do things independently, largely because I’m fairly athletic,” he explained.
Two small entrance ramps and grab rails in a bathtub make up the extent of his existing special touches. But similar to Jenney, he foresees a day that more grab rails might replace his current upper-body strength. And he rues the fact that his home was designed with such narrow doorways that his chair can’t enter some of the bathrooms in the house.
He’s lived in other homes in Los Altos and Los Altos Hills, and said his selection criteria have always been narrowed to structures with an accessible basic design.
“California ranch-style housing has a lot of features more accommodating to someone in a wheelchair,” he said, adding that developers or homeowners building or renovating to include wider hallways and bathroom doors don’t face special expense, only advance planning. “If you start from scratch, these issues truly aren’t economic.
Understanding what’s possible, and why you, your family, guests or tenants might need it, can be about more than just hospitality and self-interest. Los Altos recently failed an accessible housing audit testing whether local landlords are willing to let tenants modify a home to accommodate physical disabilities. A federal law, the Civil Rights Act of 1968, prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental or financing of housing.
“Under the Fair Housing Law, housing providers are obligated to allow disabled tenants to make reasonable modifications,” said Angie Watson-Hajjem, the fair-housing specialist for Eden Council for Hope and Opportunity (ECHO), a non-profit counseling organization that conducts fair-housing audits in partnership with Bay Area governments.
ECHO tested 61 properties in the region, including five apartments and single-family rental homes in Los Altos. Los Altos came in 0 for 5, in the sense that each landlord was unfamiliar with the Fair Housing Law and uncertain about his or her policy on such modifications.
“An example of a reasonable modification might be to allow a tenant to put up grab bars in the bathroom or to lower the kitchen counters for a tenant who uses a wheelchair. Tenants pay for the modification work,” she said. “We want the owners to be aware that if (a request) does happen, not to just say no, but to open up the conversation.”
According to Watson-Hajjem, homebuilders and landlords usually won’t encounter substantial requests such as lowering counters, as most people pursue more minor modifications. Stanley is a case in point – even though he likes to cook, he’s never bothered to redesign the kitchen in his home to bring the counters below his head height.
“If I had a wish list, it would be to have a master bathroom I could use that was totally set up – grab bars around the toilet I could use for stability,” he said. “And to have a kitchen and/or pantry where I could store things and have access to them simply and easily, and part of the kitchen counter that was lower.”
Jenney said many people in town could benefit from giving a thought to such a wish list. Los Altos has an unusually large senior population, only 3 percent of whom will ultimately live in a nursing home rather than their own private space, she pointed out – meaning that the condo market would do well to cater to this demographic.
“We are building more condos now, and I hope that the condo builders would think of some of these things, because I have a feeling that the people who are going to be interested in those condos won’t be 25,” she said. “I think that if I were building a brand-new house, I would have made the shower a little bigger and I would also have wider halls and wider doors – that’s good for anybody, whether you’re old, young or in between.”