About seven years ago, and with more and more aging Americans making decisions about how and where they were going live out their lives, the Remodelors Council of the National Association of Home Builders (now known as NAHB Remodelers) recognized that its members had a problem:
Many senior citizens were wary of remodeling contractors. Part of that problem was created by the media, which focuses on a few bad apples in an industry that, according to spokeswoman Therese Crahan, has its share of fly-by-nighters.
Another part of the problem, according to Realtor Christopher J. Artur, is that older people don't want to have strangers interfering in their lives, even if a few necessary repairs and some updating will bring in more cash for their house so they can move on to that active-adult community.
"They have trouble with change," said Artur, who completed the National Association of Realtors' Senior Real Estate Specialist designation course seven years ago to help him understand the needs of a growing number of elderly homeowners in his area. "They don't want anyone in their houses, they don't understand the importance of making the house appealing to buyers in a competitive market."
"Most of them have lived in these houses for 40 to 50 years and don't recognize that, even if they aren't going to move, their needs have changed," Artur said.
Those changing needs are typically physical in nature. In a survey conducted by AARP of its members, 89 percent said they want top stay in their current home and community as they age. However, one of the most common problems they face is living in a home that has become unsafe, and no longer matches their needs and abilities.
The necessary modifications will allow these seniors to "age in place," employing techniques often referred to as "universal design." Although the term is relatively new, the idea dates from the end of World War II, when many disabled GIs required housing that incorporate many of these design elements -- wider doorways and fewer or no steps.
Remodelers realized that this was a major opportunity, but needed to learn how to work with older consumers and to find ways to meet their needs.
The result was the Certified Aging in Place Specialist, or CAPS, designation, which 1,322 people have received since the program was rolled out in 2001, Crahan said.
"Not everyone taking the course has been a remodeler," she said. "Architects, designers and others have also completed the three-day course for the designation."
A few of the architects have complained that the course covers things they studied in school, "but most say that they are getting the opportunity to see practical applications of theory," she said.
One of the goals of the course is to make remodelers sensitive to the needs and problems of their clients.
Day 1 is an overview of the issues involved in aging in place, including the cognitive and physical changes that come with getting older, Crahan said. Students learn the kinds of programs that are available to deal with the problems of aging, familiarizing them with the intricacies of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and to talk about how universal design techniques can add to the length of time their customers can live independently.
Another part of the first day involved "sensitivity training," which Crahan said most students consider "the best part of the course." The goal is to have students experience some of what the prospective client will go through as their health deteriorates.
"One of the things is to have the student hold a tennis ball, and then a sock is placed over that hand," she said. "Then, the student is handed a pen and told to try to write a check."
In another sensitivity exercise, students wear sunglasses with lenses on which Vaseline has been spread. The students sit in wheelchairs and try to maneuver their way through 36-inch doors without assistance.
"It is very effective," Crahan said of the training.
The second day is much more technical, with students looking at rooms and then determining what things need to be done to make them more accommodating to people with disabilities.
"The students deal with actual case studies and work together as a group to come with the solutions to the problems presented," she said.
Much of the conflicts that arise between contractors and customers involve costs, so the third day deals with financial matters and will provide those who finish the day with another designation, CGR or certified graduate remodelor, which is an exclusive professional designation designed to emphasize business management skills as the key to a professional remodeling operation.
"It teaches them good, basic financial and customer skills," Crahan said, and since most of these people are small entrepreneurs, it helps them put their businesses on a more solid footing.
For more information on the CAPS program, remodelers can go to nahb.org. For a copy of the AARP pamphlet, Home Modification: Your Key to Comfort, Safety and Independent Living, consumers should link to aarp.org.