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At first glance, the house at 16218 Pennsbury Drive in Bowie, Md., seems unremarkable. In fact, the neighbors are surprised at just how well it fits into this bedroom community about 20 miles due east from the Nation's Capital.

But a closer look reveals some surprising and unusual details. Handrails disguised as chair molding, for example. Contrasting boarders in flooring and around countertops. A microwave that's reachable from a seated position. A flush doorway with no step-up. Stair rails you can actually latch on to.

Welcome to the house for all ages. But more important, a 1,900-square-foot home for folks who are moving through the later stages of life and would rather stay put than move to another place better designed and equipped to handle the infirmities that are part and parcel to old age.

It's called the "LifeWise House," and it's been built by the NAHB Research Center to show home builders they don't have to go to great lengths - or great expense - to erect houses their owners can remain in for their entire lives.

"Not everything in the house is 100 percent accessible," says Charlotte Wade, a senior research analyst at the Research Center. "But it's pretty much totally adjustable so someone can live with it as their conditions change." Which is, of course, what most people say they want.

Despite the rush of seniors leaving the harsh winters behind for the warmer climes of Florida, Arizona, Southern California and places in between, survey after study finds that the vast majority of people 90 percent of persons age 65 or older, according to the latest AARP figures would prefer to remain in their current residences for as long as possible.

Unfortunately, those who develop a disability that limits their daily activities will find it difficult, if not impossible, to do that because most houses being built today are not designed or equipped to handle the inevitable changes in people's physical abilities.

According to the Census Bureau, more than half of all seniors - 17.5 million people - suffer a substantial limitation in a major life activity. And 12 million of them say their problems are severe.

Here's an idea of what they are going through, and what the rest of us can expect as we age:

  • 10 million seniors (31.4 percent of the total) report difficulty using stairs, yet you have to step up to enter most houses, and there often are no bedrooms or rooms that can be converted to bedrooms on the main entry floor.
  • 1.2 million (3.8 percent) use a wheelchair, but standard doorways and hallways are not wide enough to accommodate them.
  • 3 million (9.4 percent) have a tough time grasping objects, yet hand rails are more decorative than utilitarian, and grab bars or reinforced walls to hold them are practically non-existent.
  • 7 million (22 percent) have vision problems, 2..8 million (8.8 percent) have trouble bathing, 1.4 million (4.3 percent) find it difficult to use the toilet, and 2.7 million (8.4 percent) have difficulty preparing meals.

    The LifeWise house is not a senior's house, at least not per se. In fact, it's 1«-story layout is not a traditional senior's design. But it is senior-friendly, and it is just what the doctor ordered, says Terre Belt, acting president of the Research Center a place that facilitates the ability of older adults "to live comfortably, safely and independently in their homes as they age."

    William Stothers, deputy director for the Center for an Accessible Society in San Diego, is enouraged, too. "Hopefully," he says, "builders will begin to see this as a market whose time has come."

    They'd have to have vision problems of their own not too. After all, over the next two decades, the number of persons 65 or older will increase by more than 50 percent, rising from 35 million in 2000 to 54 million by 2020.

    Historically, builders haven't perceived a need for even the basic tenants of accessibility an entrance without a step, at least one accessible bathroom on the first floor and doorways that are 32 inches clear width on the main living level. In fact, Stothers claims, builders have been pretty much opposed to universal design, or "visitability," as the movement is becoming known, arguing that the market doesn't want it.

    But Concrete Change, a Decatur, Ga.-based group dedicated to making all homes barrier-free, points out in its literature that the people who need these features "often have their need emerge suddenly after an illness or injury and are in no position to advocate for their needs on the market."

    Even when buyers request accessibility features, the group maintains, they often are told no or charged substantial sums.

    Concrete Change believes legislation is necessary to successfully affect the status quo. Not just measures like the one passed in Georgia in 1978, which encouraged builders to voluntarily make the necessary changes, but laws that force builders to do so.

    "Once (basic accessibility features) are required, they will become routine," the group says.

    Actually, some jurisdictions have already enacted such ordinances.

    Normally, local accessibility requirements apply only to single-family houses subsidized with local funds. But Florida passed a law in 1989 requiring that main floor bathroom doors be wide enough to accommodate standard wheelchairs.

    And last year, Pima County, Az., became the first place in the country to require a zero-step entry and certain other features in all new houses. The new rules apply only to the unincorporated area of the county and not to the city of Tucson. Even at that, though, an estimated 3,000 houses a year will be covered.

    Similar laws are under consideration in Santa Monica, Calif., and Pittsburgh. And at the national level, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., introduced a bill last year that would require all newly-built homes receiving federal funds to meet the three basic standards of accessibility.

    "It defies logic to build new homes that block people out," said the Illinois lawmaker, noting that three out of 10 people will face a disability before they are 67. But legislation may not be necessary, suggests Andrew Kochera, a senior policy advisor at AARP in Washington, who says builders are beginning to pay attention to the demographics.

    "Overall," Kochera says, "builders are very cognizant of the large generation of baby boomers" that is approaching senior status. "And many are now trying to maneuver themselves to have a product that is attractive to this group."

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