Last December, I bought my first home, a little white Cape Cod cottage nestled snuggly in a small town at the mouth of the Columbia River Gorge. Nancy*, the widowed second owner of the home, had lived there since 1957. At 97 years old, she decided it was the right time to sell her home and move into an assisted living facility just down the road. The house had become too much for Nancy to handle and she needed help with activities like preparing meals, cleaning, and bathing.
Nancy was known for being active in the neighborhood: talking to neighbors, walking to stores, and staying active in her community. She attended a local church and had many friends. Her yard was always well kept and she navigated the cement stairs into the home’s front and back entrances using handrails attached to the old tongue and groove walls. She had a walk-in shower installed, reducing her risk of falling by removing the threshold. Her little southern-facing home was always clean, bright, and uncluttered. Nancy was known for being independent, self-sufficient, and a bit of a firecracker.
As I soon discovered, she was loved by her neighbors and when she left the little white house on the corner, the community felt a deep loss.
No one ever says “I want to live in a nursing home or assisted living.” The reality is, we all want to live independently for as long as possible. For some, this might be in a continuous care retirement community, for others, a mother-in-law apartment with their kids. Still for others, it might be staying in the first house they bought with their husband more than 60 years ago. Regardless of where we decide to grow old, aging in place requires effort, planning, and communication.
What is Aging in Place?
Aging in place is the choice and ability to live and age independently in the home of your choice. At age 65, this doesn’t seem like much of a concern—you’re energetic, vital, and likely have strong ankles. A fall will bruise, but won’t feel life-threatening. The reality is that at any age, we can begin to experience accidents, injuries, decreased mobility, or physical decline. Staying safe in our own homes in spite of this means figuring out how to maneuver safely, mitigating unnecessary risk, and accepting our reality.
Aging in place doesn’t just happen. It is the result of the intentional planning and maintenance of your living environment in coordination with cultivating the supporting relationships and attitudes needed to make it possible.
The Power of Relating
The definition of aging in place calls out “independence,” but in order to successfully age in place, we have to learn to lean on the strengths and help of others. You may have noticed that Life Planning talks about relationships—a lot. Some might be confused as to why we care so much about their personal relationships with their friends, neighbors, relatives, and church groups.
When it comes to your future living arrangements, your relationships and your ability to lean on others for help, as well as your ability to offer assistance to others, can mean the difference between living where and how you want verses ending up in a situation you never expect.
Reciprocal relationships, deep friendships, good neighbors who look out for you, a church family that helps with odd projects or assists during illness, assistive technology that keeps you in touch with your kids who live far away or monitors your body for your doctor—all of these and more are vital as you work to maintain independence in the living environment of your choice.
Understanding the strengths and limitations of your community and geographical location are also critical to a successful aging in place experience. Does it snow a lot where you live? Do daytime temperatures often exceed 90 degrees? Are there sidewalks in front of your house? What will you do if you can’t drive? Can you rideshare from your home if needed? What about grocery or medical supply delivery? How far are you from emergency services, your doctor, the hospital, and community services? How far are you from your friends and loved ones or other folks that help make up your support team? Is there a senior center, church or synagogue, health club or other activities you can be involved in nearby? How accessible are home health services? These are the types of questions that should be considered when planning and preparing for your future living arrangements.
The Freedom of Choice
So you say you want to age in place—that’s great! Here’s a question: what choices and activities are you doing now to ensure your dream becomes a reality? Eighty-seven percent of adults age 65+ want to stay in their current home and community as they age. Among people age 50 to 64, 71% of people want to age in place.1
While some of the factors that play into those stats are out of our control, we know that many are well within reach. Making conscious improvements and updates, decluttering, adding lighting, adjusting traffic flow, keeping furniture in good repair, installing grab bars and supports in handy places—these are just the tip of the home improvement iceberg that can help make your home safer for you, as well as more inviting for guests with physical limitations.
Waiting until you need improvements may be too late. We’ve all heard stories about the friend of a friend who broke a bone or had an accident and couldn’t come home because their house was not set up for their new needs or even posed a danger to them. Getting ahead of potential issues is not only great for you, but can also make your home hospitable to aging friends and family members.
If you are serious about wanting to age in place, consider having a Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) perform a home assessment.
The CAPS designation is provided by the National Association of Home Builders and signifies a professional who is trained on the needs of seniors and those with disabilities. They are knowledgeable about remodeling, modifications, and structural solutions for those looking to age in place or make their home more welcoming to visitors who need extra support. Many professionals also have design experience, making a CAPS specialist a great resource for your home improvement projects.
If you are thinking about moving, consider having a CAPS specialist consult on homes you are looking to buy. This type of planning could save you money in the long run, or even make you reconsider a house you are looking to buy.
Home Sweet Home
Nancy was able to stay in her home well into her 90s because she planned for aging transitions, made the necessary changes, and didn’t experience any difficult or debilitating decline until her later years. She also had the benefit of having her son live less than a block away who checked on her two to three times a day.
She had excellent relationships in her community and her home was maintained with special modifications just for her. When the time came for Nancy to leave her home, it wasn’t because additional changes couldn’t be made, it was because her health and wellbeing depended on it and she knew it was time.
At 97 years old, with the help and devotion of her four kids, their spouses, multiple grandkids and great grandkids, caring neighbors, a loving community, and 61 years spent in one well-loved home, Nancy can say she successfully aged in place.
Creating a strategy for aging in place is just one way we help people create success as they age.
Learn more about how we can help you achieve your goals and have a plan for your retirement.
*Name changed to protect identity.
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Fisher Life Planning is designed to help aging adults navigate life’s most complex decisions. Our Life Planning Professionals help you consider and approach some of life’s unexpected challenges around housing strategies, holistic wellbeing, legacy planning, and pursuing purpose with confidence, now and into the future. Better living through education, empowerment and support from professionals who care—that’s Fisher Life Planning.