It's an absolute certainty as well as a simple truth: We're all getting older.
For Becky Bilyeu, that's proving to be a great opportunity. Bilyeu, owner of Lasting Impressions Home Remodeling Center, based here, has been in the kitchen and bath design industry for 26 years. In her more than a quarter of a century in business, she's seen a lot of changes, and she's not the only one who's grown older and wiser during that time - her clients have, too. With this in mind, she is gradually steering her business toward serving the growing needs of aging Americans.
And it's a big, even exploding, market. People are living longer than ever before, and the aging Baby Boomer generation is larger - with a greater disposable income - than at any other time in history. These aging boomers are staying active far longer than in generations past, and as a result, want to stay in their homes and communities. They are often educated, affluent and quite savvy about what they want in their homes.
Despite this fact, many of their kitchens and baths were designed with younger homeowners in mind, and as a result, are not equipped to address the needs of their now-aging occupants.
Bilyeu wants to change all that: "My goal is to keep my clients at home," she says. "To do that, they need to be safe in their home."
Bilyeu has been studying the principles of Universal Design for the past six years and is incorporating those practices into her entire operation. The trend in barrier-free home design can serve to accommodate home-owners as they age - but she's learned that these designs can be beautiful as well as functional, avoiding the look of a "handicapped accessible" home that used to be the only option for those wanting accessible design.
Universal Design can also be quite profitable, Bilyeu has discovered. After all, with 75 million Baby Boomers heading for their retirement years, designing kitchens and baths that help facilitate aging in place may well be the wave of the future in home design.
The goal of Universal Design, Bilyeu stresses, is to make products and home environments more usable by as many people as possible. In practice, it means installing simple improvements such as pocket doors in bathrooms, using levers on faucets and door handles, lowering light switches and raising outlets. Bilyeu says her training allows her to better serve the needs of mature homeowners, who want their homes to meet their needs as they age - without making their home look like an institution.
Most accidents in the home occur in the shower and tub area, and can be especially dangerous for the elderly, Bilyeu emphasizes. Yet these can frequently be avoided with a little forethought in the design process. Accordingly, Lasting Impressions specializes in safety bars, hand-held showers and specialty seats that help older clients take care of their personal needs.
Bilyeu sells Swanstone products for her safety seats, as well as heavy-duty safety bars by HEWI, made of stainless steel with a powder coating that allows the bars to be color coordinated with the bathroom's decor. HEWI's hand-held shower faucets attached to a safety bar are also proving to be popular.
And Bilyeu's showroom is always evolving and reaching out to new markets. "We have an accessible kitchen that is focused primarily on middle-aged men," she said. "It features a raised counter area and a lower counter area [to maximize convenience]."
The idea behind these kitchens is to keep families together, even when various family members come in different sizes, shapes and ability levels. So, instead of a one-kitchen-fits-all model, Bilyeu offers kitchens that can serve dual needs.
"Many times, older folks are moving in with their children," she said. "They need to be accommodated so a family can work together."
To that end, her showroom features a standard kitchen with all the accessories, and a second one designed around an island with a sink that is easily accessible to those with special needs.
The showroom also features two full bathroom displays as well as three smaller versions, incorporating a variety of Universal Design options.
Her firm works to provide everything needed to take care of the job from start to finish. She notes that the firm employs its own union carpenters who are experts at installing these specialty items in her clients' homes.
Her next showroom project, she adds, is an attempt to reach young people at the other end of the aging spectrum. Accordingly, Bilyeu is putting in an accessible display to get kids interested in working with their parents in the kitchen. It will feature a little microwave suitable for a child to operate. "It's a niche market that has not been explored," she says.
Most of her promotion is done through referrals. She does some special promotions through the mail, sending out postcards and brochures to prospective clients and established customers, she adds. Also, her Web site, www.lastingimpressionsremodeling.com, offers examples of common Universal Design adaptations.
While some of her designs require extensive planning, many Universal Design adaptations are relatively simple. For example, she notes that some of the design changes most frequently needed in the kitchen involve raising the dishwasher, lowering the microwave and creating seating possibilities at the sink and cooktop. For bathrooms, Bilyeu says taller commodes are often needed, as well as seating areas in the shower.
Sometimes, shower floor surfaces and entryways must be made wheelchair accessible or safer for those with limited mobility. However, slip-resistant flooring is a good choice for everyone, she adds.
Throughout the home, Bilyeu also suggests adding extra lighting and replacing carpets and area rugs with hard floor surfaces.
Consumers should begin planning early how they can adapt their homes to allow them to continue living in them as they age, Bilyeu believes. "It's best if they can plan and make these changes early so they don't feel panicked when the need arises," she notes.
Bilyeu, whose father and grandfather were home builders, emphasizes that as Baby Boomers approach their senior years, they will want the option of aging in place. She believes that positioning herself as a leader in Universal Design will enable her firm to tap into this growing market as it continues to swell over the next two decades.