published Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

Chattanooga builder to remodel homes for senior citizens

Dan Ringhofer wants to help elderly people stay in their homes as they age -- and he started a company to prove it.

The longtime Chattanooga builder launched Independent Lifestyle Solutions to offer specialized home remodels to help seniors stay in their homes longterm, instead of moving to assisted-living facilities or nursing homes.

Ringhofer can do everything from adding ramps to installing grab bars to lowering light switches and countertops. He'll adjust lighting and build walk-in showers and change faucets from knobs to touchless. His remodels can cost as little as $200 or as much as $60,000.

"We can come up with solutions so they can stay at home, keep their biggest asset and still safely function in the home," he said.

His is one of a growing number of construction companies nationwide that are catering to the aging baby boomer population. And he might be on to something: 76 percent of Tennesseans would prefer to receive long-term care in their homes rather than in assisted-living facilities or nursing homes, according to the AARP. Only 16 percent of Tennesseans would prefer assisted living, while a measly 5 percent named nursing homes as their first choice.

Yet the Chattanooga region hasn't fully embraced the aging-in-place mantra. Ringhofer is one of only eight designers, remodelers and therapists in Chattanooga who have completed the Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) program offered by the National Association of Home Builders. Nationwide, 5,300 people have completed the 11-year-old program.

"It's our fastest growing designation," said Jeff Jenkins, a director for NAHB education. "You'd think that after 10 years it wouldn't have the same appeal, but we're still getting people. You can look at the demographics and see that a lot of baby boomers are hitting that age. I think it's going to be very strong for years to come because of the demographics."

The three-day certification teaches builders, designers and therapists not only how to build and design accessible homes, but also how to communicate and work with elderly clients, Jenkins said.

"I would think Tennessee is a good market for this," he said. "Tennessee is getting a reputation as an appealing retirement area, and this is a good business to get into because there is a real need."

Occupational therapist Rebecca Petticord sees that need firsthand when she works with her patients. She earned the CAPS certification in July, and works with construction companies to figure out what changes should be made in a home. She said even relatively small changes can make a big difference in quality of life.

"Reaching up to turn on a light switch or too far down to plug in puts you at a higher risk for falling and injury, and it can really limit you," she said. "Just like if you can't use the bathroom in your house, you can't stay in your house. Who wants to use the bedside commode in the living room? That's what a lot of people have to do and it can take a lot of dignity out of a person."

Ringhofer said working with occupational therapists is a critical part of Independent Lifestyle Solutions' business plan. The four-month-old company is aiming to be more than just a construction company, he said.

"We want something that is going to help people today and three years from now," he said. "If they have a progressive disease, we don't want to put in a walk-in bath tub if in three years they'll be in a wheelchair and won't be able to use their legs at all. We want to know that up front."

So far, business has been slowly trickling in, rather than flooding in, he added. He's realized he'll have to overcome the perception that modified homes are inherently unattractive.

"Some people don't want anyone to know they need help," he said. "But there are other options besides ramps outside. You can do excavation, landscaping. A lot of people don't understand what aging in place is. If you do it right, you add value to the home."

Petticord said she'd like to see more people in their 50s and 60s plan ahead by making aging-in-place renovations before they need them.

"The baby boomers are the ones who need to start looking at this, but they're also the ones that don't," she said. "They don't want to face getting older, but they're already suffering from bad knees and bad backs. The more planning you do on the front end, it can really keep you in the home for another 30 or 40 years."

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or sbradbury@timesfreepress.com.

about Shelly Bradbury...

Shelly Bradbury covers police and crime in Chattanooga and Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She's been with the paper since 2012, working first as an intern and then as a business reporter. She is from Houghton, New York, and graduated from Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and minor in management. Before moving to Tennessee, Shelly previously interned with The Goshen News, The Sandusky Register and The Mint ...

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