Aging In Place: Hard To Imagine?

Aging In Place: Hard To Imagine?

Planning ahead for when simple things are not so simple anymore.

Mike Denker, left, and Todd McPhee.

Mike Denker, left, and Todd McPhee.

We human beings don't seem to be programmed to think ahead about aging. Most folks say they want to stay in their homes as long as possible as they age. Why not spend a few minutes with me thinking about the concept and the challenges of living in the standard American home as you age and have some difficulty performing the normal daily functions of life. We hear that we are all living longer. What we are not told is that those extended “golden years” can be difficult to negotiate in a typical American home.

Aging In Place (AIP) might be a difficult concept to imagine, or might even put you to sleep unless you are already over 50. The AIP concept resonates with people who are approaching retirement or can imagine it. I suggest, if you plan to live as long as possible in your present home, you should evaluate your home in those terms and consider making some changes that may make living in your home more pleasant as you age. Small changes or big changes, they will make life easier and more fun.

If you have ever broken a limb or experienced a serious illness you know something about AIP challenges. Just getting around your house, bathing, walking upstairs, making food, getting into bed and out again can be a challenge as you recover. AIP focuses on all of these problems and many others and attempts to supply solutions.

When I moved into my home in the early 1980s I was in my 30s and I was blissfully blind to some potential obstacles for those not as agile as myself. My home was built circa 1927. My mother complained that my home wasn’t friendly, but her words did not have much effect on me at the time. For instance, there were no hand rails along the stairs. It wasn't really until my wife became ill and experienced difficulty going up and down stairs that I really began to understand, at an emotional level, what basic AIP amenities my home lacked. Finally I had a carpenter install handrails along my staircases. These are perhaps the most basic AIP conveniences that were not mandated by code when this old house was built.

Think about having trouble turning the standard door knob. Europeans seem to be ahead of the USA in almost universally installing levers instead on knobs. Grasping and twisting is much more difficult and in some cases more painful than just pushing a lever down.

Recently a friend who lives in a beautiful historic home which she loves, called and asked for my help. In her 60s now, she is beginning to feel pain as she walks up and down stairs. Could my firm "shoe horn" a small elevator in from the basement to her study on the first floor and up to her dressing room on the 2nd floor? (We could.) This desire issuing from a perfectly healthy woman in her prime but who has a vision of the future and a desire to stay in the home she loves defines one driving force in the AIP movement. It takes courage to face the realities of one's life in the future. It doesn't take a visionary to witness the struggles of our parents or grandparents as a preview of our own potential infirmities and future physical challenges. However, building an elevator is an example of one of the more expensive solutions to AIP. Most people will seek simpler and less costly solutions.

Many families looking to the future have sought the advice of our construction company to solve these dilemmas. We have reworked many a home to create a master suite on the first floor. This in itself solves a load of problems. More and more we are pulling laundry rooms out of the basement for the same reason and making baths more friendly.

Imagine living life in a wheelchair. It can happen. Imagine negotiating a standard bathroom door in a wheel chair. Actually just getting through the door of your present bathroom might be impossible. In fact changing the width of door openings throughout the house is a standard AIP practice. How do you take a shower when you are wheel chair bound? Now imagine a beautiful bathroom with a shower without a door and without a curb. With these differences, you could wheel yourself in and with the convenience of an adjustable shower head, you could still enjoy the luxury of showering independently and safely.

Sitting down or getting up from a toilet or bath tub can become a major task. Perhaps the most common AIP add-on is the grab bar. They come in many lengths and many configurations and, if aesthetics is a concern, various colors and finishes. Just make sure whoever installs them fastens them securely. To have more convenient access has inspired clients to request that we raise the level of electric outlets and lower the levels of light switches.

Take a moment and think again of being confined to a wheel chair. Imagine having just arrived by car at your home. Would you have problems getting to the front door? Recently some friends called about this issue. Neither uses a wheel chair presently. They are both in their 80s and spry. Their front door was 15 steps above the street. We built them a new off-street parking area and a concrete walkway which now enables them to exit their car and walk a gentle incline without navigating a single step to the front door. If in the future a wheel chair might become necessary, they are prepared.

Have I got you thinking about the unthinkable? I hope so, because what we don’t like thinking about can easily become a reality for us baby boomers. As we live longer, and, if we don’t want to be institutionalized, AIP planning can seriously extend our happy lives at home.

We welcome your questions and comments:

By Mike Denker And Todd McPhee

Special to the Almanac