01/16/2014 05:28 pm ET Updated Mar 18, 2014

Independence: Why People Adapt Their Homes for Aging

The start of each new year finds many of us taking stock. For many of us, it's an automatic fresh start, a welcome chance to try again.

MJ Lee -- Baby Boomer and career-changer -- made her fresh start by embarking upon a second career and doing research on aging at home.

Having just completed her master's in Interior Design at San Francisco State University, Lee says, "Aging in Place is a lot like the weather -- everyone talks about it, but no one does anything about it. What if those who are pursuing successful aging could educate us? What if we understood them a little better and learned from their example?"

Accordingly, she designed an online survey to understand the attitudes of older adults who are making home modifications or relocating in order to create that special home for the rest of their lives. Building on previous surveys by AARP and the National Association of Home Builders and other research studies, it helped her take a snapshot of this often-elusive slice of the community.

Lee got interested in understanding how and why people think about aging at home because, she says, folks modifying their homes for aging are usually the exception rather than the rule. "The literature shows that less than 15 percent of older adults make recommended home modifications," Lee explains. "I also interviewed local builders, designers, and aging agencies and they concurred with that number as a ballpark figure. So the numbers are pretty dismal."

Too often, it appears, people make needed home modifications only after a health crisis - a crisis that might have been prevented by something as simple as a well-placed grab bar, better lighting or a floor free of scatter rugs.

How did Lee get into this field?

After retiring from a technology career with Hewlett Packard, she studied interior design. "I decided to do something about housing for women over 50, especially those who were newly divorced like me," Lee says.

"Once I started my Master's program and learned more about aging and housing," she adds, "I came to the conclusion that aging in place in one's home and community is one of the best solutions for both individuals and society."

She also learned from personal experience.

"Several years ago, my 90-year-old mother broke her hip, and while she was in the hospital, I implemented all the home modifications that I could to enable her to return home and live there until the end of her days. The modifications weren't pretty, but they worked," she reports.

For herself, she admits to being "in the planning stage. I have to do some major modifications to my split-level house, which has things like a sunken living room. But my fiancé and I are both designing the changes that will let us stay [there] another 10 to 15 years. It is a really large house, and we realize we may not be able to manage it in our 80s. If that happens, we plan to move to large apartment-style living."

Through her thesis research, Lee hoped to learn the demographic characteristics of baby boomers that proactively implemented home modifications or relocated to enable them to age in place, as well as modifications they pursued.

What did she find out?

The results are now published on her website. To Lee's surprise, 30 percent of the 225 survey respondents had pursued home modifications, with boomers (ages 50-64) at 24 percent, and non-boomers (age 65+) at 38 percent. This was double the rate from the academic literature, although the survey sample was biased by the fact that 88 percent of respondents had a bachelor's degree or higher. When examining why so many of these well-educated boomers had made modifications, it appeared to Lee that some had made the changes in order to accommodate not themselves, but their parents or disabled family members instead.

Modifications appeared to be most strongly motivated by the opportunity they afford people to stay in their homes and/or community, Lee reports. The runner-up motivator was, "to upgrade or beautify the home and make a good investment." The least-cited motivator was "to modify for declining abilities." Even in a biased sample of probable housing and health professionals, being explicit about coping with decline placed low on the list - even if facing facts would in reality help people to stay in their homes longer.

Lee's data also showed that only about 10 to 12 percent of respondents relocated to age in place. She thinks that's because the desire to stay in one's community is so strong.

The somewhat unfortunate finding of the research, Lee concludes, is that people may have a hard time facing the inevitability of aging.

Focus on Independence

Lee believes that health and housing professionals seeking to help consumers become more proactive should focus on helping clients maintain their independence. Talking about health and safety is just not "sexy," Lee says. "You have to squeeze it in as an upgrade that will be a good investment or help beautify the home. It's like those cookbooks where you sneak vegetables into dessert.

"Both designers and consumers need to be educated about aging issues and design for long-term functionality," she continues. "At the same time, manufacturers need to try to make home safety more glamorous. For example, how can hand rails, ramps, and grab bars look well-integrated or fashionable and still serve their function?"

With the information gleaned from her research, Lee hopes to educate consumers and help other designers. She says, "Interior designers are actually pretty welcome in the gerontology area because that field doesn't hear enough from people on the housing side."

Are you in the housing or interior design fields? Can you contribute your talents to this important field? What would you like to learn about aging, and how can other experts help you?