After decades in a big old house in Swarthmore, Don and Beth Carruthers were looking to simplify their lives. So how did they wind up with two properties half a block apart, each requiring rethinking and renovation? It’s a story about two approaches to aging in place, a concept that is intriguing and motivating many Swarthmoreans.
“We’d been in a big Victorian on Lafayette for 22 years,” Beth said. “We wanted to do the tiny house thing. We were already thinking about easing into our retirement with more convenience and no maintenance.” Several years ago, the Carrutherses bought a stone and clapboard cottage at Dartmouth and Princeton avenues. They renovated the kitchen, built a first floor bedroom, and connected both to a deck in the reimagined private back garden. So far, so good, but that was just phase one of the family’s aging in place agenda.
Another initiative suggested itself this year, involving Beth’s mother, Olive Padden, then a resident of Plush Mills in Wallingford and late of York, Pa. “I moved here in 2016 to be close to Beth and Don. I got closer,” Olive said.
The Carrutherses knew about a three-story Victorian home four doors down at 313 Dartmouth, which had long ago been divided by floor into three apartments. When the building came onto the market, Beth ran the numbers; the couple discussed the work that would be involved in renovating the first floor; then they broached the topic to a prospective new tenant: Olive.
Olive had thought plenty about living in Swarthmore, Beth said, “She always mused that it would be wonderful to live in the Ville because she could walk places. The other issue for her was multigenerational living. She made wonderful friends at Plush Mills, but she really missed seeing little kids, teenagers, people our age, little things like the mailman coming and people walking by. It was ‘a more normal way of life,’ as she put it.”
Olive grew up in New Richmond, a small town in Wisconsin, and raised Beth and her brothers mostly in York, where she owned a real estate brokerage. Swarthmore is reminiscent of some parts of each place — like York, the neighborhood is old and pretty; in New Richmond, the town is compact and “you can walk to the stores.”
The stars seemed aligned, and the Carrutherses bought 313. Second and third floor tenants remained, while the family planned changes for the ground floor apartment where Olive would live. Don is an architect who has done much of the work on their several homes, and both Carrutherses are good space planners — essential, Beth said, because “At every step along the way you have to think about the possible use.”
Work has just gotten under way for the only major construction project, a front porch with an ascending chair along the stair railing, a ramp at a wheelchair-friendly grade. Due to balance troubles, Olive now uses a rollator — a walker with wheels — and can handle steps, but if a wheelchair is in her future, the porch will be fitted with a lift. For now, thanks to Don’s handiwork, there is a new rear deck with steps down to a driveway, which she can handle well enough to walk into town. She has joined the Swarthmore Rotary Club and takes part in its weekly meetings at the Inn at Swarthmore.
Other accommodations are less apparent: hanging a medicine cabinet at a height where Olive can use the mirrors; making transitional pieces between floors of different thicknesses; installing a new shower enclosure; bolting grab bars everywhere in the bathroom. Along with painting, fixing floors and the more typical activities of preparing a place for occupancy, Beth and Don had a busy month of June. “We did a lot of thinking about how Olive would live daily life on her own,” Beth said, “where to put a laundry folding table, how to manage the temperature, and also where to usefully put furniture.”
Olive moved in a month ago, and is still “developing new patterns” in how she uses all the space of a three-bedroom apartment. Olive had a lot of furniture crammed into a small apartment at Plush Mills. Here it fits easily and naturally. In fact there is finally the perfect spot for her piano, a Steinway baby grand that now occupies a sunny corner of the front room overlooking Dartmouth Avenue. It’s the piano Beth played as a teenager, painstakingly and professionally restored during Olive’s time at Plush Mills, now holding sheet music for both to play. Listen for piano music as you pass by on the sidewalks of Dartmouth Avenue, and give Olive a wave if you see her on the new front porch at 313.
As a new resident, Olive is excited to live an idea she believes in. “I have always been into the concept of aging in place. The whole thing ties in with the idea of helping people stay here in Swarthmore, and it’s nice that the town is pushing the idea.” And as a real estate professional, Olive looks down the block with admiration: “I’ve gone through many years of clients looking for houses with a first floor bedroom and bath. Beth and Don’s house is really the way to go into aging in place. They did all the things you do if you want to stay put — building a first floor bedroom onto the house, and doing it when they’re in their 60s.”