Illustration of a branch and bird
One in three Americans is now 50 years or older. By 2030, most Americans will be over age 50—well into our second (and third) acts. How—and where—will we live? That question will occupy us, if it hasn’t already. Will we “age in place” in our own homes? Will we move to a retirement community, an assisted living facility? What are the benefits of each? How will we make those choices?
Big questions. The answers will differ for everyone. What’s true for all of us is that we will continue to grow. We won’t play bingo (unless we love it). We will do whatever we want. A University of Florida study found that after age 50 people enjoy reading, church, bicycling, swimming, tennis, travel, golf . . . pretty much everything everyone else does.
No matter where or how you live, it will be your own.
It’s what most people want. According to an AARP study, 87 percent of adults age 65 and older want to stay in the current home. Among those aged 50 to 64, 71 percent want to age in place.
Staying put does have its advantages. Familiarity is advantageous as we age, says Cummings Mobility and Conversions’ Chris Becker, who has worked in occupational therapy and medical equipment sales for more than a decade. “Staying in your own home doesn’t require re-learning new paths, new cupboard spaces, or even new placement of light switches. These are minor things that we take for granted when [we are young and] the muscles in our brain are bendable and adjust to changes.”
There are also communities in which we have roots. Aging in our homes, near friends and trusted neighbors, makes us feel safe, keeps us connected, and brings joy from deep relationships—all key elements of a full and healthy life, no matter what age you are.
Make Your Home Safe
Here are just a few more changes to consider when modifying a home for life after age 65.
Add lever handles (instead of knobs) to all doors. Also consider keyless locks for exterior doors and garages. Both are much easier for arthritic hands to open.
Install lighting on stairs. It helps aging eyes see each step.
Swap a high-nap or shaggy carpet with flat-surface flooring, like wood or vinyl, to help avoid trips and falls.
Consider safety tubs with doors for step-in access.
Switch out your light switches. Flat rocker light switches are easier to use than toggle switches. Consider lowering light switches so wheelchair-bound residents can easily reach. And fades help adjust light to the needs of aging eyes.
Replace your range with one that has handles, buttons, and graphics on the front of the appliance—no more reaching across hot burners.
Get a good self-propelled push mower versus a riding lawn mower. Keep those legs moving!
Paint for contrast. Avoid muting wall and floor colors together—a contrast between floor and wall color will help you see in low light.
Make Your Home Great
And yet, most Americans believe they won’t have to modify their homes to remain in them for a lifetime. That’s just not true.
“To age in place, you will probably need to modify your house,” says Wendy Danks of the Builders Association of the Twin Cities. Even with modern medicine, our homes will become harder to live in as we age, says Danks.
The National Association of Home Builders offers a course for remodelers to become Certified Aging in Place Specialists (CAPS). The Builders Association of the Twin Cities has many remodelers who have taken the course, says Danks. “They have an understanding of the unique needs of the older adult population, the home modifications to make their life more comfortable, and solutions to common barriers.”
If you plan to age in place, there are some basic considerations.
A first-floor bedroom with an en-suite bathroom. The majority of falls occur in the home, and minimizing steps at night, as well as steps upstairs and downstairs, will help prevent any falls. So will grab bars around toilets and tubs.
An easy, maintenance-free exterior. “Start minimizing your outdoor maintenance,” says Becker. “Downsize the garden or bushes. Get maintenance-free siding, windows, and gutters.” The goal, Becker says, “is avoiding the need to be on a ladder or use heavy equipment.” You may want to continue to mow a lawn or garden for the exercise, but it shouldn’t be difficult or physically dangerous.
A clutter-free, carpet-free interior, Becker says. “Thick carpet is a huge hurdle to rolling wheels.” So are thresholds between doorways and rooms that aren’t smooth or level.
But clutter is even more complex. Our attachment to the objects in our homes is largely emotional. Removing clutter early will pay off later. “Breaking emotional ties to stuff now is easier than having to do it in a hurry because someone is suddenly needing to use a wheelchair,” Becker says.
It is—literally and figuratively—a new lease on life. For those who choose a retirement or assisted living community, satisfaction is incredibly high. According to a poll conducted by the Assisted Living Federation of America, more than 90 percent of seniors living in such communities are satisfied or very satisfied with the quality of their lives and their independence.
And, perhaps more importantly, 99 percent of poll respondents feel safe or very safe—safer than if they were living on their own.
If you’re single, a planned or intentional community may be a particularly excellent option. According to a survey from the Center of Retirement Research at Boston College, about 65 percent of residents in independent living communities are single, and more than 90 percent in assisted living communities are. Close proximity to others in similar life stages offers the opportunity for close friendships.
Plus, when you consider the amenities potentially out your front door—fully equipped gyms, heated pools, art and music classes, trips to sporting events and historical markers, and round-the-clock care if you need it—it sounds like a pretty great retirement.
Make the Transition Great
Despite all the great reasons to move to a retirement or assisted living community, it can still be a difficult decision to make.
Often, that decision is made for you by health care needs—you or your loved one needs ongoing care that you cannot provide, and you don’t want to be a burden to others.
Sometimes it’s simply a matter of wanting a simpler life. Having less home maintenance, less responsibility, and less—well—stuff can be exciting.
“It’s a real boost mentally to get rid of a lot of old stuff,” says Mary Kay Buysse, executive director of the National Association of Senior Move Managers. “There are so many things about aging that people don’t have control over, and this is one way of taking control of your life,” she says.
How can you take control of the transition?
Create a wish list. What would you like in a new community? Same neighborhood? Exercise facilities? Outings?
Educate yourself. What’s out there? Talk to those living in communities. Visit properties. (Eat meals, participate in an activity, learn day-to-day life.) Understand costs and a community’s financial outlook. Talk to your financial advisor or a lawyer before signing contracts.
Talk to your family. They can provide a support system and help you make choices. And they can also help you assess what you’ll need.
Hire a pro to move. Someone who specializes in moving seniors can help you decide what to keep and what to sell or donate.
Keep your connections. Joining Facebook and other social media means you can keep in touch with your friends, neighbors, and family.
What’s Out There?
Here’s what’s on the market.
Senior condos or cooperatives: Residents own units in buildings specifically for seniors. Condo residents own their living unit and share ownership of the common areas. Co-op residents own the building or development and buy shares.
Apartment buildings: Specific for seniors, they can range in size with kitchens and bathrooms.
Board and lodging: Residents have private or shared rooms, and private or shared bathrooms, but do not have kitchens. Meals are prepared and served in a dining area, and there are usually other care services available.
Boarding care homes: Designed for those who need ongoing assistance with personal care, meals, and other services. Residents often can receive Medicaid reimbursement.
Care centers or skilled nursing homes: Offer assistance for a short time, as well as ongoing, round-the-clock care if needed. They can provide social, spiritual, and recreational services, and different complementary therapies. Some specialize in specific diseases or conditions.
Sources: Minnesota Department of Health and LeadingAge Minnesota, leadingagemn.org