HOME: Aging in place
Adapting for the golden years
Photo by kc kratt
When Carol Siracuse and Tom Palamuso met in 1999, both were recently widowed and shared passion for travel, sailing, and design—but not the same town. Siracuse lived in Fredonia and Palmuso on Granger Place in Buffalo. When they decided to marry in 2001, choosing where to live was a momentous decision, in part because they wanted a home that would accommodate aging into retirement. A loft would work, but they couldn’t find one near the amenities they considered essential. They also really liked the Elmwood Village and Tom was still attached to his Granger Place home, which he’d been restoring since he and his first wife bought it in 1980.
Built in 1902 for Otto and Rose Jekel, the house was one of four continuous Granger houses designed by Charles F. Jekel in the Queen Anne style—asymmetrical front façades, neoclassical details, and porches at the front entry and on the second floor flat. Palamuso’s two-and-a-half story double had a rental apartment on the first floor, and he’d renovated the upper floor and attic to create a mezzanine overlooking the second floor where he lived. Ultimately, the couple decided this space offered almost everything they could want, so they set about designing critical features that they would need in their golden years.
Because retirement means living on fixed income, Palamuso and Siracuse decided to stagger their retirement schedules and completely renovate their house while Carol was still working; he retired in 2000, she not until 2009. This was to ensure that the house would not require major work over the next twenty-five years, and also to reduce the costs it would take to maintain it. “When you first retire, you will never have more money than you do at that moment,” Palamuso says. “While we were active, healthy, and had disposable funds, we wanted to finish the house so that we would not need to worry about expensive renovations or repairs when we got older.”
Their first priority was reducing energy costs. They hired Buffalo Energy to conduct an audit and insulated, repaired windows, and replaced the furnace; this reduced their gas bill to a fraction of its earlier amount. They also replaced the roof, taking advantage of federal and state energy investment incentives to add 5KW solar panels. Next, they upgraded the electric and plumbing systems, and replaced their hot water heater with a high efficiency model. Now, their electric bill is a mere twenty percent of what it used to be, and, some months, they return electricity to the grid.
In the kitchen, they upgraded appliances to maximize energy conservation, but also reconfigured the kitchen space plan to allow them to cook together and visit with guests—something they knew they’d enjoy more in retirement. The new L-shaped kitchen is designed with two separate work zones, one for storage and preparation and the other for cooking. A small breakfast niche, including a new window, overlooks the garden and provides a wonderful morning view to the east.
In addition to decreasing future short and long-term costs, Siracuse and Palamuso wanted to maximize their earned income from the apartment on the first floor. To do so, they renovated the entire flat with a new kitchen and upgraded bath. They also maximized living space by moving Siracuse’s painting studio from the ground floor to the loft. The result is a warm, contemporary apartment that provides income to supplement their retirement savings.
Planning for reduced mobility
One of the most important issues seniors face is reduced mobility. Many use wheelchairs, canes, or walkers, and can have problems managing stairs, especially when carrying groceries, laundry, or items out of storage. To account for this and to increase storage space, the couple turned one of the bedrooms into a walk-in closet and laundry room. A laundry room directly next to the master bedroom reduces clutter, but also eliminates the need to carry heavy laundry baskets.
The couple also completely renovated their main bathroom with a door-less, walk-in shower.
The spiral staircase is a surprise entry in this article. Designed and built by Palamuso before the other renovations began, it is a beautiful connection between the second floor and the loft above, which is now a guest bedroom and office/studio. The custom wood staircase was built with only wood joints and incorporates a tight radius that nearly hugs the body of the person climbing it; handrails provide support and safety. Siracuse says that when her ninety-year old parents visited, they had trouble navigating the main stairs, but were comfortable with the spiral staircase.
And it was the main stairs that caused the biggest challenge to aging in place on Granger. Since they occupied the second floor, the couple knew they would need to find an alternative to the front and back stairs if they planned to live there indefinitely. But the Victorian home, with its complex hip and gable roof and tight driveway, plus an immovable back staircase, made an elevator impractical.
So Palamuso started to think outside the box, or, in this case, the building. Like many Queen Anne houses, the Granger Place house has several bay windows, one of which is cantilevered over the driveway. Using that as his inspiration, he designed an addition for the back of the house that cantilevers over the driveway directly next to the bay window, and that’s where the elevator is. It is located exactly where it is most needed with easy access to the garage and the garden and connecting with the kitchen above, which makes it easy to transport food and supplies to the garden for dinner parties. The new upstairs hallway that leads to the elevator was an unexpected bonus, as it’s now a gallery for Siracuse to hang the watercolors she has been painting since retirement.
Planning carefully has afforded Siracuse and Palamuso the luxury of spending their retirement pursuing their passions in a home they love—for a long as possible.
Kelly Hayes McAlonie is director of the University at Buffalo’s Capitol Planning Group.