Oh sure, some people have their golden years all planned out. They save and get excellent financial advice. Then, the kids move away. Next, they downsize to a garden home in an amenity-packed 55-plus community to which I am now shockingly eligible to join. Or, they buy a condo in some sun-washed city or just rent an apartment near the grandkids. By the time they’re in the market for a knee replacement, they’ve already toured assisted living communities and have a short list of their favorites.
Some people do all of those touted “prepare for your senior years” things. But most don’t. Most people want to stay right where they are, enjoying the comforts and familiarity of the place they’ve called home for decades, or even a lifetime. Studies–including an oft-cited one by the AARP–show that about 90% of seniors want to remain in their homes as they age.
Often the question isn’t so much the desire to live out one’s life at home, it’s the ability to do so. Houses that comfortably accommodated a dynamic young family, or even a middle-aged couple, may not be accessible or safe for a senior with limited mobility. And while we all know it takes a village to raise a child, it’s important to note that it takes a community to support an independent senior. Years ago, my siblings and I convinced my mom to sell the house we grew up in; a house she could no longer maintain after my Dad got dementia and moved to a nursing home. My mom now lives in a townhouse within a retirement community specifically designed for a senior’s needs. The amenities, including grab bars, emergency response systems and easy access to home care, came in really handy after my mother’s recent femur fracture and subsequent recovery. But after a fall or debilitating illness, many people find themselves in a home environment that is not senior-friendly, often scrambling to make necessary accommodations that will support, not impede, their recovery.
Fortunately, increasing numbers of people planning to stay in their homes has spurred development of products and services around the concept of “aging in place.” If you (or your parents) are hoping to spend your last years in the place where your memories still echo, here are a few suggestions:
Reorganize a Little
Start with the small things that potentially might be a hazard. Remove throw rugs or even area rugs with easily-lifted edges. Make sure there are no cables or wires that are not properly secured. Floor vases, freestanding coat racks and flower pots that can impede movement, catch onto a garment or fall into someone’s path should be removed. Clear countertops in the kitchen and bath of all but essential items, and don’t store things near a heat source. Trade open-flame candles for twinkling LED tea-lights. Reorganize so frequently-used items are stored on lower shelves and in bottom cabinets. Save the top shelf for once-a-year-use china and appliances, and ask a young friend or relative to do the honors of climbing a step ladder to get them down.
Level the Playing Field
When it’s time for more significant adjustments, go for floors that have non-slip surfaces like textured tile, extremely low-pile wall-to-wall carpet and matte-finished wood. Replace single steps and raised thresholds with gentle ramping, or other architectural solutions. If possible, move your living area to the first floor of the house–the fewer stairs involved in getting around the better. A barrier-free bathroom with a walk-in, floor-level shower that’s big enough for a shower chair is an excellent investment. Buy furniture and fixtures with the idea that lower-to-the-ground just means your knees will have to bend further. Contact your local senior center or Area on Aging to find out about home modification companies that will provide a customized plan that can meet your needs.
Take Steps to Minimize Falls
Falls are one of the top causes of injuries among seniors. But there are things you can do to minimize the risks. Entry ways and stairs should have sturdy railings for support. Grab bars in the bathroom can be installed and should have a contrasting color from tiles or walls for easy and quick identification. Make sure there is adequate lighting throughout the home, particularly in hallways and stairways. Years ago, my mother took a nasty fall on the stairs when she missed a step because the overhead light was out. For seniors with mobility impairments, stair lifts can provide a means to move about a multi-level house in comfort and safety.
A laptop computer or tablet can keep you abreast of the news, connect you with friends and give you access to all sorts of mind-stimulating games. Technology can bring the world to you, at a time in life when you may not feel like going out into the world every day. And, if you have a computer or tablet with a camera (which most have now), you can download a free program to actually see and speak with your children, grandchildren, friends and family who live far away. At the very least, you can see their posts on Facebook and send emails. There are other ways that technology can serve as eyes and ears for adult children, many of whom live a distance from their parents. Home monitoring technologies, that detect deviations from normal behavior, can alert emergency response personnel and family members of a potential problem.
If you plan to stay in your house, the important thing is to recognize that everything isn’t going to be exactly as it was during your most active years. You are going to slow down and your lifestyle will change. Planning for the day when you can’t safely climb the stairs or trim the hedges may be a hard thing to do, but it may pay off down the road. At some point, you may need help in one form or another: a home health aide, housekeeper, meal delivery service or just someone to drive you around. My mom returned home this week after a month in rehab. She is thrilled to be home, but still cannot do much on her own. Fortunately, her house is equipped with many safety features and she is getting the care she needs. Helping my mom through this process has made me think more about my own aging, and how I too may one day need a home safe home.