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Will Your Home Allow You to “Age in Place?”

Most homes use “Peter Pan” housing designs, because they appear to be built for people who will never grow old. ~ MetLife’s Mature Market Institute

The AARP regularly surveys thousands of older adults, and consistently at least 80% of older adults report that they want to remain in their homes rather than move to retirement communities or supportive housing environments.

Aging in place means having the health, social supports and services you need to live safely and independently in your home or your community for as long as you wish and are able.

More of us are getting older and living longer lives. The odds are good that we will need some period of extended care during our later years. Such care is very expensive, and that’s assuming we will be able to find it. So staying home and receiving care in your home will increasingly be the default choice for retirement living. It is cheaper than institutionalized care. And it can also be a more satisfying place to age.

The earlier you start planning, the more prepared you will be to respond to changes that may occur as you age such as changes in your health, mobility or social connections. Start thinking about how you want to live as you age and what steps you need to take to achieve that lifestyle. When planning, you should also consider the unexpected. This includes planning for what you would do if you had a sudden onset of a chronic illness, developed a disability or had a change in resources.

Fortunately, making your home ready for your “future self” is something you can begin doing now. It needn’t be done in hugely expensive chunks, either. MetLife spells out three sets of priorities for home modifications. The first priority, which should entail modest costs, is to prevent falls. Six specific changes are “removing throw rugs especially in the bathroom; installing grab bars and grips in the bathroom; assuring sturdy handrails on both sides at steps; good lighting and switching especially at stairs, halls, and entries; securing or removing carpets at stairs; and soft path lighting for nighttime mobility.”

The second priority is to make a home more accessible and easier to navigate. Costs here can be more extensive, ranging from a few thousand dollars to 10 times that amount. A common objective is to remove raised entrances between rooms and to the house itself. This is not only needed for wheelchair access, but for ease of use by older occupants who risk falls by tripping over raised thresholds. The cheapest changes involve common-sense relocation of furniture so people can have unencumbered pathways through their home. Easy access to bedrooms and bathrooms is particularly important.

Lastly, there are more expensive changes that include bathroom and kitchen makeovers. These modifications include a no-step shower or even a lift to help people get into the bathtub. Other bathroom changes include a wheelchair accessible bathroom sink and extra space around the toilets so a caregiver can provide assistance if needed.

In the kitchen, you might think about lowering work and storage areas so that wheelchair users and older occupants can prepare meals and have easier access to food, dishes, and cooking tools. If you like to spend time outdoors, consider providing coverings to protect you from the sun and rain. Doing all of this work could cost many thousands of dollars. For owners of multi-floor homes, the bill could be even higher, especially if you think a first-floor master bedroom unit is a sensible contingency for extended-care needs.

In some instances, you might find it more practical to move to a house, condo, or apartment where fewer modifications are necessary.

Although expenses may appear steep, consider the alternative of spending upwards of $5,000 or more a month for a unit in a full-service retirement or assisted living community. Even including all costs of at-home care and continued residency, your payback period might not be very long. And if the work helps avoid an at-home injury with hospitalization expenses, the savings might be even greater.

Of course, there are other things to consider if you want to age in place (staying active, connected, mobile, and healthy, among others), but having your home ready should definitely be a priority.