Jan Campbell always knew she didn’t want to live in an assisted living facility. So when she bought her home in Broomfield 22 years ago, she set out to make changes that would enable her to stay there the rest of her life.

“I deliberately bought a house with a large entry, no hallways and double doors between the living room and bedroom, so it could accommodate a wheelchair if necessary,” said Campbell, who is now 87. 

Over the years, she has added grab bars in the accessible shower and on the toilet. She has a bedside commode during the night, automatic kitchen shades, brighter lighting and kitchen modifications so she doesn’t have to stoop.

Campbell uses a walker for balance these days. She has had several joints replaced, and suffers from macular degeneration, a stiff shoulder and weak lungs from long-ago pleurisy. She says her legs don’t lift enough anymore to climb steps.

But Campbell says she is still happy with her choice to age in place, despite her health issues. “I set my own schedule. I eat when I want. I do what I want, when I want to do it — and I like that a lot,” she says. “I’ve done pretty much what I need to for me to survive here always.”

Campbell is among the many older Boulder area residents who want to live out their golden years in the long-time homes where they feel comfortable. And her demographic is growing: A 2019 report by Age Well Boulder County and the county’s Area Agency on Aging noted that while the total local population is projected to increase 33 percent by 2050, the older adult population (ages 60 and older) could grow by 58 percent — and the 80-plus cohort by a whopping 244 percent.

In fact, by 2050, the number of people in Boulder County over the age of 60 could top the entire city of Boulder’s current population of approximately 106,000. Residents over age 65 now number nearly 52,000, according to 2020 figures from the state demographic office.

“We are on the cusp of a dramatic increase in older adults age 80+, many of whom wish to remain in their Boulder County homes and communities for the remaining years of their lives,” according to the report.

Local homeowners like Campbell aren’t the only ones looking to age in place. A 2021 AARP survey found that nationally 79 percent of adults 50 and older want to stay in their homes and communities as they age — yet one-third say their houses would need major modifications for them to do so safely and independently. 

A 2018 Harvard University report from its Joint Center for Housing Studies is even more pessimistic. It says that fewer than than 1 percent of American single-family homes have a zero-step entry, single-floor living, wide hallways and doors, plus electrical outlets and lighting at a height convenient for wheelchair users.

The reasons for staying home are as varied as the individuals involved. Like Campbell, some prefer the greater freedom and independence of remaining at home. Others just don’t like communal living. Still others think that even expensive changes will ultimately cost less than the high recurring costs of a senior living facility.

Related: Planning to stay in your Boulder-area home during your golden years? Help is available.

That desire and the accompanying hurdles are only likely to grow, according to the AARP study, which shows households headed by people over 65 will grow from 34 million to 48 million nationally in the next 20 years.

Jan Campbell poses for a portrait on her couch at her home in Broomfield on April 29, 2022. Credit: Harry Fuller

‘I want to be in charge of myself’

That presents huge challenges because, as the Harvard study indicates, so few of older adults’ homes were built with aging in mind. Alterations can cost many thousands of dollars. Think wider doors, hallways, exterior ramps and accessible showers, just for a start. 

Incorporating such elements in a new home during construction, however, only adds 1 to 2 percent to the overall cost, according to Louie Delaware, president and co-founder of the Louisville-based Living In Place Institute. His organization offers guidance and resources to create home environments that “improve lives and promote independence and dignity, for all ages and abilities.” 

Diane Carter surveyed the costs in modifying her three-story South Boulder condo and decided to move last summer to a newly built home in the mostly 55-and-up Brennan by the Lake subdivision in Erie. 

While she once reveled in week-long bicycle excursions with her family, at 77 Carter has severe arthritis and can’t walk more than a few steps — and that only with great difficulty. She mostly lived upstairs, where for years she made do with a spare bedroom set up with a dorm-size fridge, microwave oven and hot plate. She washed dishes in her bathroom sink.

Now everything Carter needs is on the first floor, with wide hallways and doors to make it easy to get around on her motorized scooter. “I chose this because I don’t want to live in a nursing home,” Carter said. “I want to be in charge of myself.”

Experts advise thinking about how to age in place well in advance, as Campbell did, to have the best chance for living out life in the familiar surroundings of home.

“Not reaching out early on and not planning ahead can put people in a crisis situation,” said Eden Bailey, manager of Boulder’s Older Adult Services department. “It’s helpful to reflect on your willingness to accept change, your personal adaptability, and willingness to ask for help to avoid being caught unawares.”

Kathleen Hulme, a certified living-in-place specialist (CLIPS), makes a similar point. Hulme says people are reluctant to talk about aging issues. “So we put it off until we are thrust into it. It costs so much time and stress,” she says. “Having a plan can create such peace of mind.”

Jan Campbell installed grab bars in her shower as a safety measure to help her age in place. Credit: Harry Fuller

‘A life-changing event can happen anytime’

Fortunately, the city and county have lots of informational resources and programs, specialists to walk seniors through the process, and sometimes even financial help. Some programs are aided by federal funding through the American Rescue Plan Act and the Build Back Better Act passed last year.

“Together they form a sound foundation for people to stay healthy and informed on their choices, which is critical to aging-in-place,” Bailey said. 

Once a resident’s personal needs and wants are known, a CLIPS or similar Certified Aging In Place Specialist (CAPS) can identify adaptive solutions and connect the person with a contractor to make it happen.

It could be as simple as levers replacing door handles, attaching a shower grab bar, removing trip hazards and adding an entry ramp. Other possible solutions could include widening the entry and hallways for a wheelchair, installing an electric stair lift and replacing the tub with a no-barrier shower.

Delaware recommends involving doctors when there is a potentially serious medical condition, to get advice on how to prepare.  “Some start recognizing that their faculties are degrading and that there are things they should prepare for. Others are in denial and all of a sudden something happens and they find out that the rehab center won’t release them to their homes until they do some modifications,” he said. “Then they find out that contractors are super busy and give them long lead times and high prices.”

Today’s relatively inexpensive smart technology can make a big difference in the ability to remain safely at home as well. Often operating by devices connected wirelessly through a smart speaker hub like Alexa, Siri or Google, the systems can open doors, turn on and off lights, raise window blinds, see who is at the front door, set alarms and more. 

There are many places to buy the varied elements needed to refit a home for aging comfortably. But late last year, Lowe’s home improvement stores launched a company-wide initiative in collaboration with AARP  to become a one-stop source for “universal design” options to make environments as accessible as possible to everyone, regardless of age or ability.

Lowe’s Louisville store now offers a distinct Livable Home department staffed by CAPS-certified associates who can provide home assessments and consultation about an expanded array of products and services now provided by Lowe’s to help homeowners stay in place, then recommends vetted, independent contractors for the work. The Louisville store is moving in June to a new location now being built in Erie.

Like so many, Delaware also wants to live independently during his later years. Delaware, 65, was among the more than 1,000 homeowners who lost their homes in the Marshall Fire. Now he is becoming the embodiment of his company’s philosophy by building an “over the top” accessible-design home in Erie. 

It will have no entry steps or threshhold, but it will have wide hallways, multiple-height kitchen counters, dishwasher drawers beneath the counter, voice-activated faucets for sanitation, a French-door-style oven, master bath bidet, shower with no lip so a wheelchair could be rolled in, closet roughed in for a potential elevator someday, smart technology and much more.

“If it’s done right, it doesn’t look like a rehab center, but very cool with a full choice of finishes,” Delaware says. Incorporated during construction, he estimates a cost of just $2,000 extra for his smart and accessible home.

“A life-changing event can happen anytime,” he says. Delaware and his wife are healthy and able now, but like Broomfield resident Jan Campbell, he’s planning ahead for a future we’ll one day all have to face.  

Sally Bell is a former major city newspaper reporter with many years of experience, who in retirement now freelances occasionally because she misses it. She has lived in Boulder for more than 20 years.