Stan's World - The challenges of aging in place

Stanley F. Ehrlich |

As America’s population ages, we’ll likely see more articles about aging in place. Wikipedia defines aging in place as “the ability to live in one's own home and community safely, independently, and comfortably as they age, regardless of age, income, or ability level.” Aging in place should be viewed as a dynamic concept, potentially entailing multiple modifications to allow for safe living as physical abilities change. 

If you’re a senior, you may have already taken steps to live safer. Many of us can recite some of the more obvious safe practices: no throw rugs; handrails by steps; grab bars in the shower; ample lighting, especially at night; no cords lying across the floor; if alone, daily check-ins with a neighbor or relative; don’t buy a puppy who will turn into a large dog (oops!); et al.

When Pearl and I moved to Westfield, we came from a house with a large, screened porch. The house we moved to has stairs leading down to a patio. Early in our tenure here, Pearl visited the building department to ask about building a screened porch. She was told we couldn’t build one because our house was built on X percent of our lot, and X percent was the maximum coverage allowed. End of discussion.

Eighteen years later, we’re more conscious of those steps leading down to our patio, especially when carrying food. For safety reasons, and to help us to age in place, we recently inquired about building a deck, a deck that would have the same footprint as the existing patio. I called the zoning officer, who quickly calculated we couldn’t build a deck because of the building coverage on our lot. I said we don’t want to build more; we just want to build above what we already have.  

I then learned that in Westfield, anything above ground falls into the formula for building coverage on a lot. We can probably build a patio that could hold an orchestra because it is on the ground, but we can’t build a deck because it’s above the ground. The zoning officer was very polite and thorough in her explanation, and she suggested we consider applying for a variance.

A variance is an exception to zoning laws. On a case-by-case basis, you present your unique circumstance to a board of adjustment and ask the board to grant you an exception to the zoning regulations. In our case, we’re trying to live a safer life while we attempt to age in place. Carrying food down steps so we can eat on our patio is, frankly, a fall waiting to happen.

So, what have we learned about getting a variance?

  • We need an attorney to prepare our application for a variance to be presented to the town zoning board. The attorney charges a fee for services.
  • We learned from the attorney that we need an engineer to discuss drainage and present the site plan to the board. The engineer charges a fee for services.
  • We learned from the engineer that obtaining a variance for a deck requires elevation drawings and various dimensions best handled by an architect. The architect charges a fee for services.
  • We learned from the architect that the board would want to see the paths and walkways we installed amongst our landscaping, a drawing best handled by a surveyor. The surveyor charges a fee for services.
  • The engineer told us that when a board approves a variance, we can build whatever we want within that footprint, whether a deck or a porch. Hearing that, we told the architect to draw plans for a screened porch, the same porch we originally sought 18 years ago.

If communities care about their senior population aging in place, they’ll have to make it a little easier for us to stay. More innovative communities have already taken steps in that regard, with one notable example being accessory housing.

With accessory housing, small homes or in-law apartments can be built for seniors on the lot where their adult children reside. This can be a lifesaver for elderly parents and a progressive way for government entities to bend existing regulations for the public good.

A contractor once told me that if we want to build a deck, we should just build it, permits be damned. His words: “Everyone does it.” We didn’t follow his advice because it clearly violated town regulations. On the other hand, looking back, I wouldn’t have carried plates down those damn steps for the past 18 years. 



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