Aging in Place

When Mary and Lloyd James decided to leave their golf resort home in Michigan to be closer to family in Charlotte, they knew they needed help in creating a home that fit their particular needs. Mary, eighty-two, suffers from rheumatoid arthritis while Lloyd, eighty, has chronic back pain. 

A Charlotte designer creates a beautifully functional space for her aging parents

By Lisa Hoffmann

When Mary and Lloyd James decided to leave their golf resort home in Michigan to be closer to family in Charlotte, they knew they needed help in creating a home that fit their particular needs. Mary, eighty-two, suffers from rheumatoid arthritis while Lloyd, eighty, has chronic back pain.  
    Lucky for them, their daughter Vicki Payne, an interior designer who co-hosts the popular For Your Home series on PBS, could help. Rather than the elements of design such as line, shape, texture, and value, though, what first came to mind were things like affordability, accessibility, and simplicity.
“Goal number one was to design a space where they could age gracefully,” Payne says. “A place where they don’t have to be dependent on other people.”
The question of appropriate housing for older people is becoming increasingly important to American families. In 2003, 12 percent of the population, or 35.9 million people, were sixty-five or older, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And this older population is on the verge of booming—the Census Bureau projects it will grow to 72 million by 2030. Almost 150,000 Charlotteans are fifty or older, a demographic that shows more than 20 percent population growth between 2000 and 2005 in Charlotte alone, according to’s 2006 “Best Places to Retire.”

Getting Practical
The Jameses settled on a 2,200-square-foot condominium off Rea Road, near Payne’s Ballantyne home. Payne approached the project with an eye on making the whole house safe and accessible. There were a few challenges to overcome before the space would really work. For starters, it’s two stories.
    “Older people shouldn’t be deterred by two-story homes, which are less expensive per square foot than ranch-style homes,” Payne, fifty-seven, says. “The second floor offers privacy for guests and the loft is a great place to spend time with the grandchildren.” Payne solved the accessibility problem with a Stannah stairlift, which travels up and down the staircase on a sturdy rail. Though costly—ranging in price from $5,000 to $10,000 installed—the rail is an easy fix for older couples. Plus, it doesn’t do any damage to the carpet and can be removed, retracted, and stored away.
    “We love having the second floor,” Mary says. “We have a lot of friends visit us from Michigan and it gives them a wonderful place to stay. The stairlift makes it accessible no matter how we’re feeling—and it feels so nice and open up there, not closed in. And if we ever have to have someone move in to take care of us, they can stay up there in privacy.”   
    Lighting also becomes relevant for older homeowners—without proper light, everyday activities such as cooking and reading are often impaired. “As vision decreases, adequate lighting becomes more and more important,” Payne explains. She replaced many of the lighting fixtures with brighter bulbs and installed Solatube solar tunnels, flexible tubular skylights that provide natural lighting in the office, kitchen, and loft areas. Payne then mounted mirrors where they’d reflect light to not only increase the brightness of the rooms, but to also give the impression of a larger space. Of the plan, Payne says, “We aimed to anticipate as many ways to reduce slips, falls, and other injuries as possible.”
Payne then took into consideration several other factors that are often overlooked when designing a home for older dwellers. For the flooring, Payne opted for low-pile carpeting throughout the home so her parents wouldn’t need area rugs, which can be a significant tripping hazard and an obstacle to wheelchairs. She replaced doorknobs with levers on doors and added Baldwin Hardware knobs and handles to kitchen cabinets and drawers, where originally there were none, allowing easy opening and closing by arthritic hands. She also installed one-lever faucets and added Spacesaver cabinet pull-outs to access hard-to-reach items.

Designing a Home  
Payne wove her professional designer touch into the space without compromising functionality. The home appears much larger, partly due to the spacious loft above and careful placement of furniture so that it looks inviting without feeling crowded. It’s important to choose furniture that suits the scale of each room, Payne explains. She chose the dining room furniture by Pulaski Furniture for both its beauty and extra-firm chair cushions while also taking care to choose chairs that weren’t too heavy to move.
    A big, pillowy couch would have overwhelmed the condo’s small living room. Instead, Payne chose a compact tangerine sofa to anchor the conversation area. She ordered the custom-made sofa from Norwalk Furniture with extra-firm cushions to make standing up from it easier; its low arms also provide leverage when people stand up. It’s also a bit less deep than conventional sofas. “Vicki measured us from the knee back for the cushions and from the knees down for the height before she ordered the furniture,” Mary says. Also, all of the upholstery is made of Sunbrella fabric, which is water repellent, easy to clean, and fade-proof. Payne chose rounded accent tables and left plenty of space between pieces to prevent bumps and bruises and make the room easier to navigate.
    Storage is another significant challenge for downsizing retirees. To make the most of it, Payne installed shallow wire shelving in an unused, deep utility closet in the kitchen and converted it into a pantry. Instead of small nightstands, she chose large chests of drawers for the bedsides to provide extra storage.

Home Sweet Home
Incorporating familiar elements into the design presented a decorating challenge. Mary’s beloved dark pine china cabinet stood in stark contrast to the nearby light cherry kitchen cabinets. Payne transitioned the piece in with the striking Pulaski dining table, which is made of both light and dark woods.
The soft green and cream master bedroom is accented with artwork featuring nature and landscapes, which the Jameses enjoy. And the upstairs guest bedroom features golf-inspired art and accents, paying homage to the couple’s love of the game.
    “It’s important to work familiar elements into retirees’ new homes,” Payne says. “That way it’s less disorienting and they feel at home more quickly.”                   
    The spacious loft, featuring cheery cobalt furniture set off by bright white accent pieces and apple green artwork, is the perfect place to relax and watch a ball game or settle in for a board game with the grandkids. “It’s all so useful and usable,” Mary says. “It’s working very well for us.”
    And the accessibility features have come in handy in some surprising ways. “My dad loves to use the stairlift to send snacks and drinks up to the loft when they have people over,” Payne says with a laugh. “Everyone gets a kick out of that.”

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