Retirement. Florida. Golf. Boredom. What do these terms have in common? Not much, according to a mountain of recent studies of the lifestyles and demographics of aging baby-boomers. Today’s “empty-nesters” are a more diverse group then ever before, taking advantage of their newly found free time and discretionary income. They’re changing the way we think about the second half of life, living out their dreams and fulfilling life goals.
The notion that life after the children leave necessarily means loneliness and boredom has been swept away. That myth, it seems, grew from 1960s research on women being treated for depression, according to My Turn, a 1997 book by author Patricia Gottlieb Shapiro. Shapiro researched the lives of 45 women whose children had “left the nest” and discovered that most felt a sense of relief and freedom. Other scientific studies have found similar results.
Nearly one-third of America’s population (75 million people) are considered “maturing baby-boomers”, a very large and relatively affluent group that is looking for much more from the “after-family” years than rocking chairs and meals-on-wheels.
Sales Of Bermuda Shorts Plummet
You’ve got to look harder to find empty nesters these days because they’re not living where you’d expect them. BUILDER Magazine commissioned research in early 2000 to study the housing goals, preferences, and priorities of people aged 45 and older and came up with some eye-opening results.
“Mature Buyers” (the home-building industry’s term) it seems, aren’t planning to flock to the Sunbelt in droves. While climate is still an important consideration in choosing an after-family home, it ranks below proximity to family and friends. Only one-third of respondents planning to move in the next five years will head for another region of the country; of the remaining local movers, one-half won’t go farther than 25 miles from their current homes.
What, No Shuffleboard?
Mom and Dad aren’t much interested in living with folks their own age, either. Only 18% of the future movers in the BUILDER survey say they plan to move into “age-qualified” communities, where a minimum age is required for admission. Instead, they’d rather be around people of all ages, especially children, and away from “old folks”. That’s understandable – we’re talking about a younger, healthier, wealthier, more mobile group. They’re determined to remain independent for as long as possible. And medical research validates their lifestyle choices – activity has a direct impact on long-term health.
For the increasingly smaller (though still very large) group choosing golf-course communities in the Southwest and Southeast, outdoor activities are easy to come by year-round. The group staying closer to home, however, works a little harder to find the kind of mentally and physically stimulating avocations they demand. They’re finding that tonic in community activities, volunteer work, and startup businesses.
The growth of the “aging-in-place” group demands that the design professions closely scrutinize the effects of an aging population on the design of after-family homes. There are two general categories of home environment to consider – the newly built home for the group intending to move and the existing home to be remodeled for changing uses.
Wanted: Smaller (and better) Nest
OK, you’re living in a 4-bedroom 2-story colonial home in the Midwestern United States, and the kids have (finally!) graduated college. You’ve probably figured out by now that you’ve got about two bedrooms too many. There are ten years left on the mortgage, and the cost of heating the big family home has gone way up. Your life has suddenly changed, shouldn’t your home?
For many in this situation, this is a chance to upgrade to a higher quality (but smaller) low-maintenance house. And many after-family couples have the money to do it. A survey by Kemper Funds reveals that almost 6 in 10 affluent empty nesters (incomes over $50,000 per year) have at least $5000 a year in additional spending money once they’ve written their last tuition check. A smaller group finds themselves with $10,000 or more.
While some folks are indeed using the post-tuition windfall to build or buy new, a growing number are staying put – they like where they live and intend to stay there as long as they’re able.
Second Life For The Family Home
The transition from family home to after-family home is easier in some existing houses than in others. At my residential architectural practice, we often design new homes that are to varying degrees prepared for changes in the occupant’s lifestyle. A recent project for a young family includes closet space that can be converted for a future elevator, should the need arise. But even in homes where the lifestyles of future empty nesters haven’t been considered there are numerous changes that can make it easier to continue living comfortably for many years.
While some of the more dramatic changes fall into the remodeling category and involve large areas of the house, many modifications are small and isolated to specific rooms.
But let’s get the big changes out of the way first. Can the house be adapted to one-level living? This is often the first consideration of after-family couples. Trudging up and down 15 or 16 steps several times a day doesn’t sound much like leisure living. Often a study or living room can be easily converted to a first floor bedroom, or perhaps the after-tuition windfall is enough to allow the addition of a complete first-floor master suite.
Since privacy from the children is now a moot point, removing a few doors can make circulation through the house easier and make better use of the entire level for everyday living.
Simple Steps to Ease Everyday Life
The homeowners, with little more than simple hand tools, can often make smaller changes themselves. Doorknobs, for example, can be replaced with simpler-to-operate lever handles. Luminous light switches can be installed in bedrooms, baths, and hallways. Matte finish paint, flooring, and countertops reduce glare. And a programmable thermostat need only be set once – even those of us with good vision have trouble with those tiny levers and numbers!
Bathrooms are usually relatively tight spaces for adults of all ages but a number of small changes can make big improvements. A seat in the shower helps decrease bending over to wash; grab bars on the shower walls make using the shower safer; and an anti-scald shower valve has obvious benefits.
Higher countertops, lever faucets, and a phone jack can also help keep the bath functional and safe later in life.
Now We’re Cooking
Everyone has experienced the transformation of the kitchen from utility to social space as our home lives have become less formal. We eat, cook, relax, and entertain here – it’s the center of the house. Nowhere in the house is it more important to adapt space to changing needs and again, small modifications can make all the difference.
Most kitchen improvements are designed to reduce the need to bend at the waist and eliminate reaching over obstacles. A side-by-side refrigerator, for example, is much easier to use than a model that requires reaching deep into a bottom freezer. Pull-out shelves in the lower cabinets and adjustable shelves in the upper cabinets have a similar positive effect.
The kitchen is an obstacle course, really – full of tools and appliances that sometimes seem poorly designed for adults of any age. Decorative cabinet knobs and pulls, while pretty, can be difficult to grasp. They’re quickly replaced, however, with hardware designed for ease of use. And here’s something that works for everyone once the kids have grown – a cooktop with front-mounted controls.
Just Like Home
As more and more empty nesters choose to stay in their existing homes, they’re finding a fulfilling life in familiar surroundings. It’s a positive trend that should be reinforced by designing new homes with the flexibility to accommodate changing families. And many existing homes are easily remodeled to keep the new empty nesters close to the diversity of life experience and the exposure to people of all ages that many of them prefer. Bachelor Party Cartagena