As Norman resident Doyle Gadberry began to talk about recent modifications to his home, his tone of voice couldn’t have been mistaken for anything but happiness.
Gadberry and his wife, Evelyn, recently had their home at 1909 Lakehurst Drive modified so they could continue to safely age in place there.
The home, built in 1976, had a sunken in living room. To get in and out of the area Gadberry had to build ramps, but even that wasn’t ideal, so he began to avoid the area. The two built a garage room and were spending most of their time there instead of the rest of the house.
“We didn’t have to stay out there, but everything was more convenient. In (the house) it was just difficult to get around. The living room was an up and down process,” Gadberry said.
The couple also encountered problems after the extension to their home to enlarge their dining area began to sink into the Oklahoma clay, cracking the ceramic tile in the area.
“The ceramic tile, it was dangerous really,” he said, adding that he wanted to call a contractor, but didn’t think he could get one out to do such a small job. After making the call though, he was put into contact with Kendra Orcutt.
Orcutt is an occupational therapist that does home modifications working with a company contracted with the City of Norman, Home Mods by Therapists. After talking with the couple, Orcutt said she knew the couple needed a lot done to their home so they could stay there safely.
The sunken living room is no longer sunken; the home has been completely leveled. The bathroom has been modified to be wheelchair accessible, the dining room addition was redone and the dangerous cracked tile has been removed.
A new ramp was added to the front of the house, replacing a temporary, plywood ramp the couple had built.
“It’s unbelievable,” Gadberry said. “I sit here in this recliner in our living room now and just look around. It’s almost completely changed, the whole thing. It doesn’t even seem like the same house or the same area.”
Gadberry said the changes wouldn’t have been possible without the grant program since they don’t have much income and don’t have that much saved up.
“The City of Norman made that possible,” Orcutt said. “Without (the grant) we could not have done this for this couple.”
The couple, ages 86 and 85, are still able to take care of themselves to a point, although Doyle always has to keep his walker close by. But the modifications have helped provide them with more peace of mind.
“You get accustomed to a place when you live there so long,” Gaddberry said. “It’s great we won’t have to leave.”
Aging in place is a concept that has been around for some time. It’s something that allows a person, or family, to stay in one place as they grow older. It could include modifying a home so things are more accessible for aging adults, or finding a home in a neighborhood conducive to aging in place.
“Most people have been in nursing homes and know what nursing homes are like and that’s the last place they’d ever want to live,” said Dave Boeck, a professor of architecture at the University of Oklahoma.
Boeck has been researching and helping people modify their homes to age in place for about 10 years.
On top of people not wanting to move to nursing homes or assisted living centers, those options are also often times more expensive. While Norman has a lot of assisted living options and nursing homes, the right kind of modifications to a person’s home can be much cheaper, he said.
“The premise of aging in place is that even with supplemental health services and care services, it’s about half the cost of living in an assisted living or longterm care facility,” Boeck said.
As Boeck started to age and underwent several surgeries, he began to think more about accessibility.
Following knee and back surgeries, managing the stairs to reach the only full bathroom in his two-story home became difficult. Boeck said it’s a common problem in older two-story homes, which often only feature a half-bath on the first floor.
Karen Vahlberg, CEO of Life Springs and Home Care Network, also works with Orcutt and Boeck on home modifications. Her company provides services to patients or people in their homes, assists with activities of daily living and help seniors maintain their current living situation.
“Most people want to live at home. No one wants to be in a hospital or nursing home or any other facility. They have a strong desire to be inside their home,” Vahlberg said.
The home modifications help those people stay home and keep people out of facilities, she said.
Many people also love the neighborhood they live in and have easy access to services and community activities, which provides them with a supportive environment, Boeck said.
“Aging in place research has shown that when people live in an environment that’s supportive and where their friends are, their family is, they stay healthier,” he said.
Living in a mixed, inter-generational neighborhood, Boeck said his neighborhood is not only walkable with lots of creeks and parks, but it’s also within walking distance to a grocery store, hardware store, drug stores, and more. Areas like that support aging in place, which is what Boeck and a group of others are beginning to research for development.
Boeck said he’s known people that have moved because they want to be closer to their kids after they retire. With Norman being a college town, existing infrastructure already contributes to the idea of aging in place.
“College towns are the most aging-in-place-friendly communities, or most popular because you’ve got a lot of faculty and staff from universities that retire that want to stay around the university and so Norman’s kind of a natural place to develop those properties,” Boeck said.
There are several areas of the city that are within walking distance to services and community activities, as well as the Cleveland Area Rapid Transit (CART) public transportation system. For active seniors, Norman is also a bike friendly community.
“We already have a pretty good transportation system because of the students,” Vahlberg said. “I’d love to see us have more options to have senior citizens get around, whether it’s some type of car service or bus.”
Vahlberg said it’s not like the east coast where someone can get on a subway or bus. People rely on their cars much more here than in other places and in bigger cities. While she thinks Norman is ahead, she said she’d still love to see more specifically targeted toward senior citizens.
“The number of senior citizens is expected to double over the next 25 years,” she said. “That number will continue to grow.”
As Norman also continues to grow, Vahlberg said as community activities, events and facilities continue to develop, the aging population should be kept in mind.
In terms of new development, Boeck is also currently working on a 20-unit housing project that would be conducive to aging in place.
While there was debate about whether a clubhouse should be included, rather than just making another living unit, Boeck said having one would be beneficial. Residents could have pot luck dinners, weekly classes could be held there or even weekly medical checkups.
“You could provide a lot of supportive services in this community center that’d make it a lot easier than going door to door,” he said.
The location of the project was also ideal, as it was within walking distance to previously mentioned services. Another thing to consider about the housing unit is the social aspect of it.
Vahlberg said sometimes as people age they struggle with loneliness and isolation, which is why group living is good to consider.
“It just depends on who the senior citizen is and what their life situation is. People always want to stay home, they’re reluctant to move because they’re so tied to their own home. But they do sometimes do better because they’re less isolated,” she said.
“We’re trying to walk that line of putting seniors in close proximity. Have them be social and yet still be independent, still have their own place.”