Art Aiello is a writer and editor based in Waukesha, WI.
“Aging in place” is a term used to describe the fact that more and more seniors want to stay in their homes for as long as possible. Despite the fact that we recently posted about how to effectively downsize and move into a smaller space, modern medicine and technology have made it such that seniors can remain in their homes longer than ever before. So if you want to “age in place,” what are some of the things you need to consider?
First there is the issue of access. If you have limited mobility, you need to ensure that your home can accommodate your physical needs. For instance, if you have difficulty climbing stairs, they might be an obstacle for you that you need to overcome long-term. This might not be an issue in a ranch-style home, but for a home that has a second story or one that is a split-level configuration, it could be a real challenge.
Another issue related to access is space. If you use a walker, wheelchair or electric scooter to get around, you will need space to accommodate your device. A walker is fairly compact, but a wheelchair or scooter might not be able to get around furniture or through doorways. This is especially a concern regarding entering and leaving the home. You especially want to avoid finding yourself in an emergency situation and not being able to easily get out of your house.
Other kinds of home medical equipment can bring other concerns, as well, particularly if that equipment requires electric power. If you use an oxygen machine, for instance, you will likely have a battery backup, but that battery won’t last if the power is out for an extended period. My mother uses a power-assist recliner, and she, unfortunately, found herself stuck in it one day when the power went out. Fortunately, my father returned from work in relatively short order to help her get out of the chair before she needed to use the bathroom or take her medications.
Given all of these concerns, there are a number of things you can do to make it possible to stay in your home for a very long time. First, do an assessment of your space vis-à-vis your physical limitations. Does anything currently impede your ability to get around the house? Beyond your current needs, do you anticipate your condition changing such that you might need a wheelchair or other home medical equipment in the near future?
Once you’ve evaluated your living conditions and your physical limitations, you can develop a plan. This might involve making some modifications to your home. For example, if you currently need or anticipate needing a wheelchair, you might find that you have to widen some doorways to accommodate its size. Maybe there are one or two pieces of furniture that can be removed from a living area to make it easier to navigate. Perhaps steps into and out of the house need to be eliminated and replaced with a ramp to make it easier to get in and out.
If you live in a multilevel home, and you have limited mobility, one option might be to make renovations such that you can live only on the main floor. Perhaps a parlor could be converted into a bedroom, or a half bath could be made into a full one. Many new homes come with laundry facilities on the main floor, and as such, a creative contractor might be able to find a way to move your washer and dryer from the basement up to the floor where you live, sparing you multiple trips up and down the stairs.
My mother, who has had both knees replaced, often teases me about when I’m going to get a stair lift installed in my home to make it easier for her to get to the second floor. While she is not serious, installing a stair lift might make it possible for you to easily access a bedroom and bathroom on the second floor of your home. There are even companies that specialize in home elevators to help people with limited mobility get between the floors of their homes.
Stair lifts and elevators — as well as many pieces of home medical equipment — require electricity. If you live in an area that is prone to frequent power outages, you might want to consider investing in an automatic home standby generator. These appliances run on your existing natural gas or LP fuel supply and turn on automatically when the power goes out. They will provide electricity to your home until utility power returns, meaning that you can use all of your devices — even the ones that aren’t necessities, like the television.
Finally, if you live alone, consider investing in a medical alert device. If you fall or otherwise find yourself incapacitated and cannot reach a telephone to call for help, these devices — often worn on a chain around the neck — will summon emergency help with the simple press of a button. Once while traveling with my mother, she fell out of bed, and my godmother with whom she was staying wasn’t strong enough to get her on her feet. Fortunately, my godmother’s son was able to come over and help, but if something like this were to happen to my mother while she was home alone, she wouldn’t have been able to get help so easily. It’s a wise investment in your safety.
While all of these are great ideas, there’s no escaping the fact that remodeling, buying stair lifts, investing in generators, etc. all costs money. As such, your planning has to include a realistic assessment of what you can afford. In a perfect world, you’d be able to ride your electric scooter into your kitchen, make a cup of tea, then drive onto your home elevator and take it up to the second floor and your bedroom. That’s not always possible, or even practical.
Sit down with your financial planner — or a trusted relative, if you prefer — to review your finances in both the short and long term. Perhaps you will have to invest several thousand dollars to make your home safe and comfortable for you to age in place, but that investment amortized over 10 or 20 years might make sound financial sense. Alternately, you might find that you can only invest a small amount in remodeling as you need the remaining funds to live comfortably.
In any event, careful planning will make sure that your life in your home — both today and for many days to come — will be safe, comfortable and within your means.
Don’t know where to start? Below are a list of helpful links to get you started.