Housing Boomers

BY EMILY LE COZ

Daily Journal

TUPELO – Baby Boomers who since 1946 have dominated America's politics, culture and economy are now influencing the next wave in home design.

Across the country, and certainly in Northeast Mississippi, this aging generation has triggered a surge of smaller homes on smaller lots – many stocked with elder-friendly amenities to retard the dreaded move into the nursing home.

“When you look at the whole senior living world, the objective is to stay at home as long as possible,” said architect Richard McCarty, who has designed structures to accommodate the aging and those who have become disabled.

Most Baby Boomers – now aged between 42 and 60 – won't admit being old, but many are planning for it as they downsize from family home to empty-nester haven. Often at this stage, they are buying their last house and want to accommodate future needs.

“I plan on being here until I go to the cemetery,” said Mary Evelyn Maxwell, who recently moved into a one-story house with wider doorways featuring handles, not knobs.

The wider doorways will allow Maxwell mobility if she ever needs a walker or wheelchair, and the handles make it easier for arthritic hands to open doors.

“I remember my mother had arthritis and had a hard time gripping the door knobs,” said Maxwell, a widowed grandmother. “The handles, you don't need to grip. You just lay your hand on it and push.”

Fast-growing trend

So popular has this housing segment become that at least one residential development company here dedicated an entire subdivision community to the 55-plus market. Tupelo's Premier Builders set aside 44 lots inside The Villages as a “private, adult community” called Camellia Place. Three other completed communities and a fourth under development in the subdivision are open to any age.

To live in Camellia Place, at least one family member must be 55 years old. Home buyers can chose between seven floor plans featuring one-story designs and a list of amenities to make aging easier or to postpone it longer.

Amenities include wider doors with handles, higher countertops so residents don't have to bend while chopping veggies or washing hands, walk-in showers with lower thresholds to accommodate wheelchairs, and low-maintenance exterior siding and landscaping.

“All of it is designed with this age group in mind,” said Nat Grubbs, project manager for Premier Builders. “We're even seeing people in their mid 40s wanting to buy a home here.”

Not only must younger Boomers wait to move into Camellia Place, so does everyone else. The gated community has completely sold out – the first of the subdivision's communities to do so.

Now The Villages is considering making its sixth and final development of approximately 60 lots another adults-only community called Lexington Square.

“The 55-plus market is the fastest growing segment of the population,” Grubbs said. “They've been telling us that at trade shows for years, and they've been right on the money.”

Boomers hit retirement age

The aging market will continue to grow as long as Baby Boomers continue to age. Boomers today account for nearly 30 percent of the population nationwide and nearly 27 percent in Northeast Mississippi. They are by far the largest age group.

The oldest among them hit 60 this year. By the time the youngest among them hit 65 in 2029, the elderly population could more than double from what it is today.

And contrary to their own grandparents, the future elderly of this generation are living longer and more active lives thanks to improvements in diet and health care. They are also retiring with bigger nest eggs than did their forebearers.

“I think there's no doubt that we'll see more of” these kind of houses, said city planner Pat Falkner. “That's where the money is.”

Falkner said it's impossible to track the number of new homes being built to this standard in Tupelo, but he has noticed a sizable spike in zero- and garden-lot line house construction. A few years ago, he said, no one built houses on small yards. Today, it's all the rage.

And not all elder-friendly houses get built in elder-friendly communities. Many are emerging inside traditional neighborhoods, either as new homes or as remodeled units.

“I just did a very high-end bathroom last year that cost $100,000 for the sole purpose of the guy staying in his house because he's about 70,” said residential builder Lynn Bryan. “If he became wheelchair-bound he wouldn't have to move out of his home. He updated his whole house.”

Universal design

What Bryan, Grubbs and others are doing operates under a principle called “universal design,” which strives to make an environment accessible to the largest number of people at any given time.

It's not a new concept, McCarty said, but it has gained popularity recently as the population ages and becomes more sensitive to special needs.

“The beautiful thing about universal design,” he said, “is it's kind of an invisible accommodation of a physical disability.”

That's why Maxwell's house or that of Ann and John Karoly – both in the Camellia Place community – look nearly identical to the typical GenX residence. Its special features are too subtle to immediately detect, but they are definitely there.

In the Karoly house, for example, visitors won't find more than one step or a single bathtub – too easy to slip and break a bone, John said. And the door to the most common room for accidents, the bathroom, opens out instead of in so emergency responders can easily access a fallen victim.

“I never thought about those things until I was about 55 years old,” John said. “Now that we're in our mid 60s, though, it's tougher to move around.”

But these features don't scream “old people live here.” And that's the whole idea, McCarty said. Even when it comes to designing homes for those living in retirement communities like Traceway.

Duplexes, apartments and even the new institutionalized nursing home called the Green Houses there offer living situations that mimic a home rather than a hospital.

“The key is that people want home, they don't want institution,” said Traceway executive director Greg Warnick. “We're thinking the Baby Boom generation might not even want us to be a community isolated from the rest of the community. So, we're looking at how we can help people in their existing homes instead.”

Contact Emily Le Coz at 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@djournal.com