The majority of seniors live in conventional housing, as opposed to a senior citizen facility, according to science writer Rachel Adelson, author of “Staying Power: Age-Proof Your Home for Comfort, Safety and Style”. Some of the benefits of staying in your own home, or aging in place as it's sometimes called, are: It costs less, keeps you in familiar surroundings and offers greater independence.
The tough housing market of the past few years has led many older homeowners to stay in their homes longer than they'd originally planned. As a result, many people are remodeling rather than moving, not to improve the market value of their home, but to individualize their home and make it more suitable to their own needs.
Many baby boomers are simply not interested in moving to a traditional continuing care retirement community. Boomers have redefined a number of lifestyle areas over the years, and the process of aging is no different. So many boomers won't want to live in the same community as their parents or grandparents did. They feel younger, they're working longer and they're considering other options.
The paradox is that in order for seniors to stay in the same home by aging in place, they must embrace change: their changing bodies, changing capabilities and the modifications to their environment necessary to accommodate those changes.
The time to think about aging in place is not after you retire, but before you retire. One preliminary step is to research the services available in your own community. Often there is more than meets the eye, including support for transportation, nutrition, fitness and entertainment. Then long before you need to, you should start age-proofing your home, like we baby-proof our homes when we're expecting a new child.
If you're moving or remodeling, consider living on one floor, so you won't have to negotiate stairs. Yes, running up and down stairs is good exercise when you're younger, but stairs can be a hazard for older people.
Some people plan ahead. My own parents moved to a one-story house when they were in their early 60s. Then they both lived comfortably through their 80s. Another couple I know remodeled their home and turned their second floor into the kids' bedrooms. They moved the master bedroom down to the first floor, complete with an oversized shower and wide doorways. The couple did this when they were in their 40s and in good health, and their plan is to use the upstairs for guestrooms as soon as the kids grow up and move out.
But if you do still find yourself going up and down stairs, be sure to improve lighting in the area to make the stairs more visible and less hazardous. Another idea: install traction tape along the front edge of each stair, in contrasting colors, to outline the stairs more clearly and prevent falls. While you're at it, improve the lighting in your bathroom and kitchen, outfit the kitchen with easy-to-use tools and utensils and get rid of scatter rugs throughout the house. Also consider installing grab bars in the bathroom, as well as a raised toilet seat to help people with bad knees or a bad back.
Again, there's no reason to wait to make your changes, as I found out recently myself. I took a nasty spill in my own shower. I slipped as I was stepping over the side of the tub, grabbed for the soap dish and pulled it right out of the wall. I tumbled over the side of the bathtub onto the floor and gave myself a big bruise. This was several weeks ago and I still have an ugly brownish splotch as big as a basketball from waist to armpit.
So you don't have to be old to start making your home a safer place to live. It's better to plan ahead than fall on your head. But one last point. Figuring out how and where to live in old age isn't necessarily a one-time decision. You can do a lot in your own home for a long time, even if it has stairs. Then, if and when things do change, you can reassess your options, and still go the way of your parents and grandparents if you want to.
Tom Sightings is a former publishing executive who was eased into early retirement in his mid-50s. He lives in the New York area and blogs at Sightings at 60, where he covers health, finance, retirement and other concerns of baby boomers who realize that somehow they have grown up.