JP Observer: Simple changes can make housing senior friendly

Jamaica Plain is such a great place to live, younger people are joining older neighbors to think and talk about how they can “age in place” in the neighborhood. A big consideration, of course, is housing.

When the Washington Street/Columbus Avenue corridor study community process launched recently, several people, not just elders, commented in writing that needs of seniors should be addressed.

Studies show it is not major illnesses that tend to drive older people from their homes. Instead, when routine activities of daily living become harder to accomplish, people often move away and into special all-senior residences.

The good news is that, today, making new and existing living spaces hospitable to many JP residents as they age wouldn’t be difficult or wildly expensive. Some sensible modifications would even save money down the road, including for Medicaid, as well as contribute to sustaining the community.

To make sure our housing is senior-friendly, local policies and zoning regulations should require builders and renovators to adopt specific design principles.

The “Stonybrook Neighborhood Vision for Small Scale Residential Development,” (, crafted by the neighborhood association, optimistically describes a future where “neighbors are supported through all stages of life.” A mix of sizes and prices of units, including subsidized ones, are recommended, as well as accessible living space with no garages in place of first floors.

Because construction for seniors increases everyone’s safety, convenience and comfort, it is often called “universal design.” Senior membership organization AARP has a room-by-room description of the concept at

PBS’s “This Old House” website presents “6 Ideas for Elder-Friendly Design” that would make anyone’s daily life easier: levers instead of doorknobs, no thresholds, handrails on both sides of stairwells, well-lit common areas, slip-resistant floors and, of course, grab bars in bathrooms. The National Aging in Place Council ( offers ideas for more extensive adaptations.

For some people, double handrails won’t provide enough support after a while. And JP is full of stairs—stairs that lead up to the second and third floors of triple-deckers, plus stairs to various floors in single families and stairs to basements. Even “first floor” units often have a flight of stairs outside. Elevators are expensive and difficult to install.

Fortunately, the need to go to the basement is greatly reduced by putting washers and dryers, as well as electrical panels and even storage space, upstairs in or near living units.

Most of us have seen ads for electric stair lifts. Relatively inexpensive and adaptable, they don’t necessarily need to be installed in new construction, but everyone should be aware they may be needed indoors and/or outdoors one day. Because of the Fair Housing Act, landlords and condo associations are expected to allow and welcome any resident who needs it to pay for having a stair lift.

As local folks and the city look at building plans, it would help seniors and future seniors if zoning and community call for universal design to maintain the neighborhood’s diversity and increase residents’ ability to stay in their homes.

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