In my last article, I addressed the significance of accepting your aging loved one's right to make personal decisions, whenever this is possible. Most aging people I work with, hands-down, state that they wish to remain in their home forever. I have heard "I just want them to carry me out of here," "the only way I'm leaving is feet first" and other variations on this theme. In fact, this feeling is so popular that the term 'aging in place' has become a trendy catch-phrase.
Is it possible for everyone to age in place? What do you have to do to remain in your own home safely? That is the tricky part. With proper planning, and also by becoming proactive now, it is possible in many cases to age in place and remain in your home. However, this plan is at risk if there is a complication that causes expectations to remain in your home to become unrealistic.
I recently heard someone say "I'm staying in my home forever." When asked, "What's your plan?," she replied, "I'll figure it out when I get there." This is probably the best example of how not to get what you want or, in other words, the worst scenario of how to age in place.
The time to plan your aging-in-place strategy is before you arrive at the age when you are not able to do what you once could easily manage. I need to qualify this by expressing that most people will say, "I'm just fine," although they clearly have limitations. So if you are middle-aged and living in your home with the goal of aging in place, then it would be wise to heed this advice: Waiting until you actually need modifications or special accommodations is never a good plan. It places a huge stress on everyone ... usually your adult children. They are the ones who often get stuck with the job of making the house safe for their loved one who is saying, "I'm not leaving." They are the ones to initiate the nagging process to encourage their aging loved one to downsize and move.
Usually it is the family, friends or co-workers spending time with the the aging person who begin to see the dangers: a slip here, a fall there, eye sight problems causing issues, a tub that is no longer used because of difficulty getting in ... the list is long. Homes are not built in general for aging in place. In one 55-plus community, when I inquired why they did not have grab bars, the representative replied, "People don't like to see them. It makes them feel like they are getting old." So there lies the problem: We do not want to stare aging in the face, so we put off things like installing grab bars, safety accommodations, proper railings, effective lighting and a multitude of other concerns.
How can you plan ahead for aging in place? If you have a home without a full bathroom and bedroom on the first floor, that is always a challenge. Too many steps and bad joints are a bad combination. Seventy percent of the baby boomers will have a time when they cannot navigate steps due to a hip or knee replacement or back surgery. The biggest obstacles to staying in the home are typically mobility issues and living with dementia. Other barriers are living in a home that requires too much maintenance and having financial constraints that make it difficult to manage the upkeep of the home.
Evaluating whether the house in which you live now is a reasonable option for aging in place is essential. It is much easier to make a transition in your 50s, 60s and even your 70s than it is in your 80s to 90s. At that point children usually get "stuck" with the house clean-out and moving. That's why your children may begin the nagging process if you haven't already considered moving into an accessible residence that can become your home in which to age in place. If continuing to live in your current residence is your choice, then making modifications now can help to ensure a greater possibility of staying put and enjoying a better quality of life. Modifications which include grab bar placement, hand rails, lighting changes and same-level full-bathroom access, just to list a few, can increase the possibility of aging in your home when possible.
A home safety and risk assessment, performed by a professional who is either a Certified Aging in Place Specialist, or refers to one, is well worth the money spent if aging in place is your goal. That person can evaluate your current home and make recommendations, as well as complete remodeling, to accommodate the aging process. It's not as easy as walking into Home Depot aisle number 14 and picking up a few things. Modifying your home to safely age in place should be done thoughtfully and carefully. Local Aging in Place Specialists are Robin Ford, of Robin Ford Building and Remodeling, at RobinFordBuilding.com; and Dan Mack, of Senior Smart, at Dmack@seniorsmart.net.