Aging in place has been the preferred plan for the vast majority of seniors for several decades now. Survey after survey has revealed that, when asked where they want to grow old, practically every American adult has a three-word reply: “my own home.” That’s an admirable goal, since living at home can be – for most seniors – the more affordable, more rewarding, and more secure choice.
But there’s one big problem with this rosy scenario, as this recent HealthDay article points out: the seniors may ready, but their homes aren’t. In the article, reporter Dennis Thompson cites recent data to prove that about half of all U.S. adults have given no thought to making their homes age-friendly, and as a result a large percentage of American houses have design features that could render them unsafe for an aging senior. If aging in place is your desired scenario, this article is for you. (And as you’ll read farther down, it’s a topic about which Rajiv Nagaich of AgingOptions has some strong opinions and insightful wisdom.)
People Aren’t Taking Steps to Age in Place Safely
While most of us say we would rather stay home and live independently for as long as we can, a new study has revealed that most haven’t really thought about what that practically means. In the HealthDay article, Thompson writes, “Nearly 9 in 10 Americans (88 percent) between 50 and 80 years of age said it’s important to remain in their homes as they grow older, the latest University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging found. But nearly half (47 percent) admitted they’d given little or no thought to the steps they’d need to take so they could remain safely and comfortably at home in their old age.”
Assistant professor of nursing Sheria Robinson-Lane, a co-author of the study, says, “So many older adults want to be able to stay at home for as long as possible, but it just doesn’t seem as though most are really thoughtful about what that means and the sorts of ways in which they have to prepare.”
Seniors Aren’t Sure if Their Home is Age-Friendly
The new study was done over the phone and online, surveying 2,300 U.S. adults, randomly-selected, between the ages of 50 and 80. Thompson writes, “The AARP-sponsored poll found that only 1 in 3 middle-aged and older folks (34 percent) said their home has the necessary features that would allow them to age in place. Another 47 percent said it probably does, and 19 percent said it does not.”
The most common features that a large majority of people reported having in their homes were ground-floor bathrooms and bedrooms. But that alone doesn’t make a fully accessible home. Notably missing: door frames wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs, lever-style door handles, and stair-free home entrances.
Further, those ground-level bathrooms weren’t exactly as accessible as they should be. Thompson explains, “About 36 percent of bathrooms had shower chairs or benches or raised-height toilet seats; 32 percent had grab bars, and just 7 percent had barrier-free showers.”
Many Can’t Afford to Pay for Home Aid
These features are all designed to prevent falling, a sadly common and dangerous possibility made all the more hazardous when you’re living alone at home. Of the respondents in the study, over a quarter reported living alone without access to assistance with bathing and dressing, putting them at far higher risk of falls.
Ramsey Alwin, president and CEO of the National Council on Aging, said, “Falls are a big area of concern for us. Last year alone, there were more than 3 million injuries related to falls, and that resulted in over 800,000 hospitalizations.”
Many seniors say they do have some help available. Thompson writes, “On the positive side, a majority of aging Americans said they do have someone who could help with grocery shopping (84 percent); household chores (80 percent); managing their finances (79 percent), and personal care (67 percent).” But he adds, “just 19 percent said they’re very confident they could afford to pay for someone for that help. Nearly two-thirds said they probably couldn’t afford it.”
This apparent disconnect between desire and reality is not surprising, according to Alwin. For most people, the implications of aging get drowned out by everyday considerations. “Folks want to age in their home but the reality is they’re often living paycheck to paycheck, managing chronic conditions related to heart and diabetes,” she said. “It’s one foot in front of the next for so many, just sort of putting out those immediate fires and making ends meet and trying to address their health and wellness.”
Age Denial is an American Tradition
As HealthDay points out, there’s an even deeper psychological issue at play here: aging just isn’t on most people’s radar, even though it’s something we’re all experiencing. Alwin said, “Never mind the fact that we’re all in denial that we’re aging, even though with our first breath, we sure are. It’s sort of an American tradition that we deny that reality.”
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Embracing aging begins with a good plan, and according to assistant professor Robinson-Lane that begins with a list of priorities. “First, consider if your current house is the house that you want to grow old in,” she said. “And if it isn’t, start to think about where you want to go.”
Thompson writes, “About 1 in 5 older adults (21 percent) said they’d moved in the past five years, the poll found. More than half (52 percent) had moved to a home that was easier to get around; 49 percent to a smaller home, and 34 percent closer to relatives.”
Do Your Own Safety Survey
Alwin urges that everyone—senior citizen or not—perform a simple but thorough fall-prevention inspection of their home, especially if that’s where you want to be for the rest of your life. She explained, “A couple of simple questions will help you ensure your space is falls-free. Look at those area rugs. They are the danger zone. Think about how you’re using stairs. Make sure you’re avoiding wearing socks on those stairs. Can you add some level of rug or grip to make those stairs a little bit more friendly?”
If you would like a checklist-based tool to help you with an inspection like this, check out the Falls Free Checkup Tool from the National Council on Aging.
Thompson adds, “An aging person also should consider whether there are ground-floor rooms that could be used for sleeping and bathing, so stairs can be avoided as much as possible. Further, seniors should plan for the assistance they will need – list the people, businesses and organizations that might be able to help out when necessary.”
Overall, your home should be able to age with you, and making some simple modifications can go a long, long way.
Make Friends with Technology
Thompson suggests that seniors aging in place would be well served to become more tech-savvy, something we’ve discussed on Aging Options before. “There are lots of voice-activated systems such as iHome or Echo devices that enable seniors to call for assistance without having to remember a phone number,” he writes. “These devices can also help people keep grocery lists or reminders of daily activities. Even appliances have gone high-tech, with safety features like cooking stoves that are enabled for Wi-Fi and feature automatic shutoff.”
Only half of older adults polled in the study reported using smart devices at all. Of those, Thompson writes, “The most common were voice-controlled devices (21 percent); smart thermostats (18 percent), and doorbell cameras (16 percent). Fewer than 10 percent reported having each of the following devices designed for safety: smart stove alarms; bath temperature monitors; water leak detectors; smart medication pillboxes, or emergency response systems.”
But the old stereotype about aging adults not understanding technology is changing drastically, in large part due to the pandemic. It’s not too late to learn some of these new methods for safety, ease, and higher independence in the home. All it takes is a little willingness to learn.
Rajiv Says There’s Much More to This Story
Rajiv Nagaich of AgingOptions has seen it all when it comes to aging in place, and he reminds us that the concept is about much more than simply having an age-friendly home. “That is not all you need to pull off being able to age in place,” he stresses. For starters, Rajiv says, the term “aging in place” is misleading.
“We get it wrong when we say we want to age in place,” Rajiv states. “What we really mean is that, when I can’t manage my own affairs, the care I need will come to me – I won’t suddenly have to be moved to an institution where I’ll feel like a stranger with zero control over my life. If that’s the real goal,” he adds, “you can achieve it in your current home, a new home or a retirement community. That is the first decision that needs to be made.”
What’s more, Rajiv emphasizes, this isn’t a solo decision. “Your life impacts others,” he says, “and those who will be impacted by your choices should have some input. If you’re determined not to move, you’re going to need an age-friendly home, the money to pay for care, and the support of loved ones to oversee that care – making sure the caregivers show up, don’t take advantage of you, or leave you neglected. And make no mistake: that will put a burden on those closest to you, whether you like it or not!”
Not surprisingly, Rajiv emphasizes thorough advance planning and plenty of communication with loved ones. “Remember, planning ahead will not eliminate burdens, but it can minimize them,” he says. “You may very well decide that a retirement community is your best option to reduce the load on your family. But if that’s the choice you make, choose a CCRC – a continuous care retirement community – where you’ll have a written guarantee that, when you become too frail to live independently, you will never have to move again. Knowing that your care is assured means peace of mind for you and those closest to you.”
The bottom line is that aging in place isn’t merely a wish or a dream – it takes planning and preparation. We hope you’ll talk to the professional team at AgingOptions and Life Point Law, because there’s no one better equipped to help you with this complex issue.
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(originally reported at https://consumer.healthday.com)