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Focus on: Aging in Place

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For Blacksburg, Va., newcomer Pat Lewis, being able to afford an efficient, well-planned home in a close-knit community almost seemed too good to be true.  Lewis, who moved to Virginia’s New River Valley a year ago from Myrtle Beach, S.C. knew she wanted to live in a town where neighbors, transportation, and downtown amenities were close by. As a senior citizen, it was also important to Lewis that she could continue to live in the home of her choice safely and independently as she got older. 

Fortunately for Lewis, her ideal living situation became a reality when she was selected from a local housing lottery to be a resident of the newly-constructed Grissom Lane Apartments in Blacksburg—a community that has been identified as one of the best places for retirement living in the nation.

Developed by CHP in partnership with the Town of Blacksburg, Grissom Lane Apartments is a model of eco-friendly, affordable housing for residents aged 55 years and older. The design of the new rental community was inspired by a community charrette organized by representatives of the New River Valley Livability Initiative to discuss the meaning of aging in place and conceptualize new intentional housing options for the New River Valley. From this charrette evolved a collaborative project of five regional organizations (New River Valley Area Agency on Aging, New River Valley HOME Consortium, Habitat for Humanity of the New River Valley, and Habitat for Humanity at Virginia Tech and the New River Valley) to develop and implement a strategic plan to help people age at home and in their community.

“What we learned from the Aging in Place charrettes was that the needs and desires of the aging population in our area were similar to those expressed nationwide,” explained CHP Evaluation Specialist and Business Analyst Marsha Underwood. “Eighty percent of those over the age of 45 indicated in an AARP survey that they want to remain in their own homes even when they need assistance, which is what our aging population indicated as well. This is significant when you consider that national statistics on aging indicate the number of adults 50 and over is expected to reach 132 million by 2030, when one in five citizens will be 65 or older.”

An aging population, however, brings specific challenges to the community. According to a publication produced by the New River Valley Livability Initiative called Home in the New River Valley, declining mobility makes it harder for older adults to navigate stairs and bathrooms, and many find that their existing homes no longer meet their needs. “When older adults are no longer able or comfortable driving, few options exist to get to and from the grocery store, the doctor, or to people and places they want to visit,” the report states. And although many seniors enjoy relatively good overall health, by the time they're 85, two of every three people have some type of disability, regardless of their income levels. “These challenges can increase both health risks and isolation, which are significant factors that drive premature placement into institutionalized care – an extremely costly housing option for older adults, their families, and the public,” the report explains. By creating housing that fits the needs of an older adult population, however, communities can help them stay in aging residents homes longer and avoid costly institutional care,” concludes the publication.

Another issue that seniors face is the condition of existing housing. MetLife says that while the numbers and age of older individuals has changed, home design has not: “A huge portion of our housing stock follows design basics developed during the post-World War II housing boom when longevity was considerably less than it is today. These homes were built for growing families not for growing old, reduced mobility or caregiving.” Home in the New River Valley adds that most housing occupied by the elderly was built for people who function independently. Such dwelling units often have stairs, high thresholds between rooms, inadequate lighting, and bathing facilities that are difficult for many people to use easily and safely.

In response, CHP Design Studio and CHP Construction incorporated Universal Design features throughout the rental community so that residents may live independently and comfortably for the long term.

According to CHP Architectural Design Intern Kristin Moye, Universal Design is about creating spaces that everyone, regardless of age, size, or ability, can safely live in or visit, even as individual’s needs and abilities change. Essential Universal Design features include: 

  • At least one step-free entrance into the home; 
  • An accessible bedroom, kitchen, and full bathroom on the ground floor; 
  • Wide doorways and hallways to allow accessibility; 
  • Controls, switches, and outlets that are reachable from seated or standing position; 
  • Easy-to-use handles and switches; 
  • Low or no-threshold stall showers with built-in benches or seats; 
  • Non-slip floors, bathtubs, and showers; 
  • Raised toilets; and 
  • Appliances installed within the universal reach range of 15” to 48” for easier use.

Grissom Lane Apartments resident Pat Lewis remarked, “It’s so nice that the apartments are all on one level. It’s clear that they thought about all of my needs—from hand railings and lower cabinets to wheel chair accessibility. In each room, someone looked at and addressed every aspect of living I might encounter. There is no instance where I’ve wished they had done things differently.”

The Grissom Lane development is also unique in that it is the first EARTHCRAFT Net-Zero Ready development in the state of Virginia. As such, each home produces as much or more energy than it uses. Electricity is generated by a net-metered 28kW solar photovoltaic system, while high insulation values, extensive air sealing, Energy Recovery Ventilators (ERV), and mini-split heat pumps are used to reduce the energy demand on the homes.

This is a welcome feature for the residents of Grissom Lane because continually rising energy use and prices means households in the New River Valley are spending more and more of their income on home heating bills and fuel. According to the Livability in the NRV report produced by the NRV Livability initiative in 2014, the cost increases have been even more dramatic for those who live in older and less energy efficient homes.

“I’m excited about the energy-efficient features because they will help with utility bills,” said Lewis. “You can tell by just looking at them that the apartments are well built. Also, when you have the front and back doors shut, you can hear and feel just how well insulated they are. There won’t be air coming in under doors and it will be very comfortable living here.”

The rental community has four duplex cottages and is managed by CHP Property Management. The one-and-a-quarter-acre site, which allowed the homes to be intimately arranged along a short walking loop, also includes a community garden and central gathering area where residents have the opportunity to create an interactive and supportive community.

“Thoughtful design that fosters resident engagement is a very important component of housing for aging populations,” said Moye. “Numerous studies indicate that social integration is a key issue in old age and an important factor for successful aging.” In fact, the Gerontological Society of America reported that social integration was found to promote life satisfaction, alleviate the devastating sense of loneliness, and improve physical and mental health.

Grissom Lane Apartments was funded in part by the Town of Blacksburg's Community Development Block Grant Program, the New River Valley HOME Consortium, NEIGHBORWORKS AMERICA, and Enterprise Community Partners.