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Helping infirm senior citizens 'age in place' As over-65 population surges, demand for products, services that help them remain in homes grows

Replace doorknobs with levers. Widen door frames. Install a ramp over the front stoop. And maybe add a few electronic monitoring gizmos.

Those are solutions that help the elderly -- especially those with physical challenges -- stay in their longtime homes.

"Aging in place" is what the lion's share of older Americans want. But in single-family houses, that can be hard to do.

So some aging residents move into a widening array of senior housing projects.

Others are getting by with something as simple as a new toilet -- just a few inches higher -- and some grab bars in the bathroom. That's what it took to make it easier and safer for one elderly man to use his bathroom again.

"Sometimes I want to cry when I see how some older people are struggling," said Clay McQuerry, a certified aging-in-place specialist at Missouri nonprofit Rebuilding Together Clay County, who visited the man.

Whether it's remodeling a room or signing up for a panic button to press after falling, a growing and ever-more-advanced array of "universal design" and "assistive technology" features is available for aging homeowners.

Demand will skyrocket as the over-65 population booms. Futurists say elderly or infirm people living in their own homes may even have monitoring equipment that, using artificial intelligence, won't just respond to but will help predict when emergencies might occur.

"There are so many little things we can do, so many new assistive devices that are being created to help people stay in their homes," McQuerry said. "We just have to know about them."

For now, fancy technology takes a back seat to remodeling and some basic call devices.

Shirley Saathoff, for example, got a small panic-button pendant and two-way communication system for her tidy Lee's Summit, Mo., home.

"It's a godsend, honey," the 72-year-old woman said of the device that provides 24-hour monitoring. "I've fallen five times, and there was no one around to tell I'd fallen."

Frankie Cline, 87, got new front steps and a railing at her Clay County front door, replacing a single, very tall step. She used to have to hold onto a chair on the step to get up it, but twice the chair slipped, and she fell.

"I feel like I'm living again," Cline said. "And my friends -- they're getting old, too -- can visit again. Before they couldn't get in my house, either."

In Lee's Summit, an 83-year-old retired autoworker and his wife can keep their washer and dryer in their basement, thanks to a chair lift on the stairs.

The assistive technology market for in-home services is competitive and growing. Security alarm companies see services tailored to the elderly as a natural business extension, particularly in what Fields calls "the box and button" market.

Much of the United States has a long way to go before such products are used as commonly as they are in Europe.

Buoyed by socialized medicine and a drive to keep health care costs low, there's more assistive technology embedded in many European homes.

Paul Lillig, a designer with Picaso Design/Build who specializes in home remodeling for seniors, says he most often does bathroom and kitchen work.

"Typically I can put in a lot of those accommodations for nothing more than $10,000," Lillig said. "That may sound like a lot, but it's $10,000 one time that may help people stay in their homes for three to five years longer versus $10,000 a month for many months in an assisted living center."

Trying to figure out what's needed to help older people stay independent has caused some companies, such as GE Appliances & Lighting, to encumber their often-youthful design teams with faux infirmities that mimic low vision, arthritis and other frailties that make products difficult for old people to handle.

Industrial designers are analyzing everything from grocery store shelving to airplane restrooms to car braking systems -- all with an eye toward making life easier for the growing numbers of elderly.

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