Is Your Home Suited for "Aging in Place"?

Related topics: Where to Live, Safety, Factsheets & Checklists, Senior Lifestyles

In our long-time homes, among familiar possessions … is staying at home a safe choice as we grow older?

The idea of aging in place has grown in prominence as the baby boomers age. Surveys show that an overwhelming majority of Americans over 50 say they wish to stay in their own homes as they grow older, rather than move in with their adult children, or to a retirement community, or to a supportive living environment such as assisted living.

There are many good reasons to remain in one's long-time home as the years go by. For many Americans, staying in our own homes means staying where our roots are. We cherish our familiar surroundings. We're familiar with the services and businesses in our neighborhood. We rely on an informal support system of family, friends and neighbors as we continue to live as independently as possible.

But researchers caution that the decision to stay at home should not be made without thinking through all the pros and cons. For example, it's important to consider what would happen if we could no longer drive. Stephen Golant, a researcher from the University of Florida who has studied the housing needs of senior Americans for over 30 years, points out that a senior's long-time home may not be the best choice. Says Golant, "We need to think about two sets of feelings—not just feeling comfortable, but also being in a place where we feel capable of achieving our everyday needs, from self-care to buying groceries to reaching doctors, and don't feel that our lives are spinning out of control."

Many seniors discover that their homes haven't kept up with their needs as they deal with the common physical changes of aging. For example, stairs and other home hazards can lead to dangerous falls for people with mobility and sensory challenges. These falls are a serious problem for seniors! According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), thousands of older adults die from fall injuries every year and millions more are treated for nonfatal injuries. Falls are the top reason seniors go to the emergency room. And over half of falls take place right in the person's own home.

Fires are another concern. Older adults are at greater risk of being injured in a home fire. They may be physically less able to take quick action after a fire. Cognitive impairment or the side-effects of medication may affect their ability to make decisions. They may forget to turn off the stove, or fall asleep while smoking.

Seniors are also at greater risk of criminal activity in the home. Unfortunately, many burglars and con artists target frail, vulnerable elders.

As Our Condition Changes, Our Homes May Need to Change Too

Whether you live in a house, an apartment, or a condo, it's never too soon to take stock of your home. What changes can make your home as safe and secure as possible? And if you are one of the growing number of family caregivers whose older loved one now lives with you, have you considered ways your home can adapt to your loved one's needs?

Senior-friendly modifications can provide greater peace of mind for everyone in the family. Some modifications, such as adding a roll-in shower or lowering kitchen cabinets, are fairly major remodeling projects. Other improvements are easier and can be done for a smaller cost. Here are three steps to take as you evaluate your home:

Remove Hazards and Add Safety Accessories. To help prevent accidents, perform a room-by-room safety inspection of the home. Make repairs and remove clutter throughout the home and outside. Inspect smoke alarms. Make safety improvements and additions, such as non-slip, non-glare flooring, low-pile carpeting and grab bars in the bathroom and night lights. Improve lighting in all rooms. Remove or secure area rugs.

Add Adapted Features for Accessibility and Independence. Enhance accessibility and improve independence with adaptive features such as easy-grip knobs and pulls in the kitchen, wheelchair or walker access, and touch light switches. If necessary, re-arrange the house for one-story living. Consider a security and personal alarm system.

Make Home Repairs for Comfort and Convenience.  Make sure roof, gutters, stairs and railings are in good repair. Inspect and upgrade plumbing, electrical, heat and air conditioning systems if necessary. Install energy-efficient features such as weather stripping and insulation.

You can fix some things by yourself or with the help of handy friends, but doing it yourself is not always the best way to go. Poorly planned and built features can prove useless, or even dangerous. For example, a ramp that is too steep and lacks safety features is worse than no ramp at all. Grab bars that are not solidly anchored can cause rather than prevent falls. If you are hiring a handyman or contractor to do some of the work for you, be certain the person or company you select is reliable and trustworthy. 

Give your home an aging in place checkup!

Print out this two-page checklist to help you brainstorm ways your home can be safer and more functional for older adults.

Home repairs and modifications can be costly. Read on to the next article to find helpful resources from the National Council on Aging.

Source: IlluminAge Communication Partners; copyright 2015 IlluminAge.