Preparing the home for old age

Preparing the home for old age
(Stock photo)

By Jane King

As do most Americans, the majority of Alexandrians want to stay in their homes as they grow older. Too often, however, families find themselves in crisis when members who prize their independence are unexpectedly required to use a wheelchair or walker. They then may find that a beloved home does not accommodate an individual with physical or other limitations, including sight or hearing.

Even if aging is not an immediate concern, it is important to prepare your home — in advance — for your older years. If you downsize, it is advisable to seek a home that accommodates changing needs as you age. In Alexandria, the design of many of our homes creates significant impediments to their use by those with physical limitations. With some adjustments, however, its occupants may be able to live out their lives in it.

Fortunately, Virginia has stepped in to encourage residents to buy or modify homes to help those who have mobility or other impairments. The Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development offers the livable home tax credit, for up to $5,000, as compensation for those who incorporate into homes — either during construction or through retrofitting — features that enhance their usability for frail or disabled residents or visitors.

The department specifies some of the standards that qualify for the credit. They are features that adhere to “universal design” principles, an approach that makes it possible for as many people — of varying sizes, ages and abilities — to use a product, appliance or structure.

The elements in a home that can ease the passage through it for a person using a wheelchair or walker (or, for that matter, pushing a stroller or carrying packages) include a zero-step entrance reachable by way of a firm surface that is not steep. Doorways need to provide at least 32 inches of clearance. And hallways must allow 36 inches in clearance to allow passage by a person in a wheelchair. At least one bathroom — it can be a half-bath — and the kitchen must be accessible and usable conveniently by a person with physical limitations.

Ideally, homes would be built with these features, but most of us in Alexandria are in housing with steps at the entrance, narrower doors and hallways, and small bathrooms on the first floor. This does not limit your eligibility for a tax credit. If you retrofit your home with grab bars in bathrooms, lever-door handles, no-step tubs, accessible light switches, accessible kitchen counters or many other changes, you can apply for the credit, though credits for retrofitting are only 50 percent of the cost of installation up to a maximum of $5,000.

If you’re interested in taking advantage of the livable home tax credit, you should go to and/or call Violet Peyton at 804-371-7124. You want to make certain that you are satisfying the eligibility requirements for the program.

The author is chair of the Alexandria Commission on Aging.