Demographers predict that home buyers will remain in their houses longer than at any time since the Great Depression. Over the next 20 years buyers will increasingly prefer to "age in place" -- that is, grow older without moving.

Although it's tough to generalize about any population segment, especially boomers, the generation born between 1946 and 1964 has been a mobile one, both geographically and upwardly.

The time has come, therefore, to look at slowing down, even though baby boomers may be too young to consider it now. And that slowing-down tendency has given birth to efforts at "flexible" home design.

Eighty-five million baby boomers are getting old, so you'll find conscious efforts being made to make homes comfortable over the long haul.

One early manifestation is single-level design, which eliminates the need for stairs. This includes a first-floor master bedroom suite, which was slow to gain a presence in many Northeastern markets because builders believed it would not stand up to resale.

Their fears were unwarranted, and flexible design -- having the house evolve with changes in needs and lifestyles -- is becoming the goal of an increasing number of residential builders, both inside and outside the active-adult market.

As people age, they wish to devote less time to maintenance chores and more to living a life that they, through years of hard work, deserve. This means single-level living as much as it means freedom from mowing lawns and shoveling snow.

Many builders believe that while houses should be more flexible, the things that make them flexible have to be subtle. Active adults -- who soon will be primarily baby boomers -- tend to react poorly to things they perceive as "old."

The first baby boomers are looking for active-adult communities that focus on their needs to keep working well past retirement age, to keep healthy, to keep using their skills, and to learn new things.

They don't want to see bathroom grab bars or toilets designed for people with disabilities until they actually need them. So many builders make all the doorways 30 inches wide to accommodate wheelchairs without making a big deal of it.

Kitchens are designed to handle wheelchairs, but the counters are not movable -- even though some flexible design codes call for counters rising and falling with the ability of the user to reach them.

Nine-foot windows are being added to housing to allow additional light that people will find necessary as they age, but no one comes right out and says, "That's why you have big windows."

Being unwilling to acknowledge growing older is one result of the "cult of youth" that has dominated our society since the late 1960s, according to Theodore Roszak, whose 1968 book, The Making of a Counterculture, brought to light the conflicts between youth and technocratic society.

"We created the impression that youth was where it's at; that the industrial society gets younger rather than older and that we would stay young forever," said Roszak, a history professor at the University of California.

Once the media and marketing people latched on to the young demographic, they decided it would be with us forever, Roszak said.

These attitudes are likely to change, however.

"Today we evaluate wealth in terms of possessions and money," Roszak said. "From now on, wealth will be thought about in terms of health, well-being and long life."

But what happens when health deteriorates enough to make living less than easy, but not bad enough to go to assisted-living or continuing-care facilities?

After all, surveys show that most older adults prefer to live independently and in their own houses as long as they can.

Flexible, or "universal," design is a way to achieve this goal.

The universal-design philosophy takes two trends into account: One is that people 45 and older buying trade-up housing do not plan to move frequently.

The other is that as people age, they progressively will have trouble doing everyday tasks, such as reaching down to open a kitchen drawer, reaching up to get a book on the top shelf of the bookcase, or stepping over the raised base of a shower stall without having something to grab onto.

Universal-design features make the house accessible to everyone, not just those having increasing problems with accessibility.

This includes front-loading washers and dryers, ovens with side hinges, and electrical outlets you can use without getting down on your hands and knees.

It also includes lever-handle door and faucet hardware throughout the house; recessed door fronts on base cabinets for wheelchair access to sinks; a staircase that can easily be retrofitted for a chair lift; and a no-threshold shower in the master bath.

Some houses also include flexible "bonus" space that can accommodate a live-in nurse if that becomes necessary.

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