Sullivan: Extending Independent Living for Seniors

What does it take for older adults to live safely in their own home? As this area contractor has found, aging in place isn’t just about construction.

Michael Sullivan is used to removing barriers for aging homeowners. But the barrier he finds most challenging isn’t actually physical.

“The hardest part is for the homeowner to acknowledge that they are aging,” says the owner of Sullivan Home Improvement Solutions.

It can be difficult to admit that climbing stairs or performing a once-simple household task is more difficult with age. Admitting it, though, is the first step toward a more comfortable living situation. It’s a conversation Sullivan and his team at Sullivan Home Improvement Solutions has almost daily. The Rockford area’s only Certified Age in Place Specialist (CAPS) contracting company remodels homes so a person can successfully live there well into their golden years.

“People aren’t necessarily focused on their challenges,” says Sullivan. “They may find that it’s harder to move around the home, but there’s still a lot of pride and resistance.”

The saying “pride goeth before the fall” is meant to be taken figuratively. Unfortunately, in Sullivan’s line of work, it takes on a chillingly literal meaning. According to statistics compiled by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), an older person receives a fall-related injury every 11 seconds, and it almost always happens at home. As Sullivan points out, it’s not really a question of whether someone will fall in their home. It’s a question of when and how drastic the outcome will be. A fall that causes a serious injury is often a life-altering event that forces a homeowner to move into an assisted living facility. This is a worst-case scenario that Sullivan and his team seek to avoid.

“We really are laser-focused on fall prevention,” he says.

Modifying the home into a CAPS-friendly space usually begins in the bathroom, where 80% of falls take place, according to AARP. Sullivan Home Improvement Solutions offers a number of preventive measures, including walk-in bathtubs or safety showers with grab bars, seating and handheld showerheads.

“Updating your bathroom is not a major remodel,” says Sullivan, “but just having a grab bar with a 500-pound drop weight, instead of one with a suction cup, is going to make a difference.”

Sullivan’s fixtures all meet the standards set out by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). While they are the safest products available, they can cause aesthetic concerns with his clients, which represents another barrier. Sullivan points out that most safety items easily fold into the home without extensive changes, or they can go where they won’t be seen by guests.
Ramps are a good example.

“Instead of altering the front entryway and making it look clinical, we can put the ramp in a garage,” Sullivan says. “That’s also more practical because the homeowner can access the ramp from their car and they’re out of the cold weather.”

Stairs anywhere represent a serious fall hazard, one Sullivan can address in a number of ways.
“A lot of people have a laundry room downstairs,” says Sullivan. “We can eliminate that challenge by moving the laundry room upstairs.”

Another solution is a stair lift, which smoothly and safely carries individuals up and down a staircase. While a stairlift can be effective when used in tandem with a first-floor laundry, Sullivan adds that stair lifts alone won’t completely eliminate the risk.

“With a stair lift, they would still need to carry the laundry down and bring it back up, which is still cumbersome,” says Sullivan. “If the sole purpose of going downstairs is laundry, we think a first-floor laundry is the better solution.”

After almost two years in business, Sullivan has become adept at assessing and finding solutions. Unfortunately, denial is the bigger barrier that stands in his way. Sometimes it takes intervention from a friend or family member who sees the challenges their aging loved one faces.

“Over the holidays, someone will see their family member struggling,” says Sullivan. “Then they are motivated to look into options.”

Another obstacle is the concern that home modifications will take too long. A typical Sullivan Home Improvement Solutions project usually takes between three and five days.

“We’ve got the process streamlined pretty well,” says Sullivan. “We start every job on Monday morning, and we’re usually done by Wednesday afternoon. If it’s a larger job, we’ll be out of the house by Thursday or Friday.”

The remodel also includes a thorough inspection.

“We have a licensed plumber on staff,” says Sullivan. “There is both a rough and finished inspection, so the homeowner has an extra layer of insurance.”

Sullivan also makes sure every ADA-compliant fixture that can be grabbed, sat on or held will handle much more weight than necessary.

“With our CAPS certification and as fall-prevention specialists, we’re held to a higher standard,” he says.

Sometimes, even economic anxiety can stand in the way. While any home renovation will cost money, Sullivan points out that the costs of age-in-place remodeling can save money in the long run.

“When you consider that it costs between $5,000 and $10,000 per month for assisted living, after half a year you’re really saving a lot of money,” explains Sullivan.

Real estate value is another thing to consider. According to AARP, the United States is an aging nation where, by 2034, people 65 and over will outnumber children 17 or younger.

“If that’s the case, there are going to be more people looking for age-in-place amenities,” says Sullivan. “If you have an age-in-place modified home, the market for that home is going to continue to grow.”

With some straightforward modifications, Sullivan Home Improvement can address 90% of fall risks. Sullivan also points out that, the faster a home is modified into a CAPS-friendly home, the more time the homeowner will have to enjoy independent living.

“There is a relatively short gap where people are motivated to identify the need for assistance to when they truly do need assisted living or 24-hour care,” says Sullivan. “We can extend that.”

Sullivan’s services extend those years in more ways than one. A safe home provides confidence and peace of mind, which leads to better health. Moving from one’s home to an assisted living facility takes a mental and emotional toll, while the psychological effects of living independently in a familiar environment have a net positive effect.

“The quality of life that is maintained through the familiarity of your surroundings, and the ability to stay in your community is part of the benefit,” says Sullivan.

He started Sullivan Home Improvement Solutions after a career in sales, landscaping and construction. After installing a walk-in safety shower and first-floor laundry in his mother’s apartment, he saw a need for age-in-place standards that was only going to grow. He earned his CAPS certification through the National Association of Homebuilders and started the only contracting firm in the region focused on fall prevention and giving freedom and independence back to aging homeowners.

It hasn’t been easy, but Sullivan knows he’s making a difference, one home at a time.

“When I’m at a home show, people will look at my stair lift and say, ‘I don’t need that yet,’” he says. “Nobody wants to feel like they’re getting old, but according to the AARP, 85% of people over 65 want to remain in their homes. That’s what we’re focused on. It’s not just business. It’s personal.”