What It Means to Age in Place—and How You Can Make It Work for You
With a little planning, you can make aging in place part of your retirement plan.
When it comes down to it, most of us hope to live out our days in the comfort of our own home. For many people, unfortunately, that's not a practical reality—illness, disability, and degenerative disease mean assisted living is the best route for many as they age. But with proper planning, experts say most individuals can lead long and happy lives in their long-time homes, no matter what age they are. The key is to plan for aging in place by making upgrades to your living space over the years.
"People spend a lot of time planning a two-week vacation, but they don't spend a whole lot of time planning that part of their life," says Lisa Cini, an award-winning senior living designer and CEO of Mosaic Design Studio.
If you want to pursue aging in place—the ability to live in your own home and community safely, independently, and comfortably regardless of age, income, or ability level, as defined by the U.S. National Institute on Aging—preparation is key. Your own home might feel like your preferred residence, particularly if you've spent decades there, but your home as is probably isn't equipped to support you as you age. Here's how to know if you should attempt aging in place and how to prepare your space and lifestyle for the long term.
Decide if aging in place is right for you
Most people think about physical health when deciding whether they can safely age in place, but there are many other factors at play in determining whether you can successfully live on your own at home well into retirement.
To find out if you’re a good candidate for this lifestyle, Equitable advisor Jody D’Agostini, CFP, suggests asking yourself the tough questions.
“Things that you might consider is needing help with your personal care: bathing, dressing, feeding yourself, continence, transferring from the bed or chair to the floor. Can you continue the household chores that are needed such as cleaning, laundry, and grocery shopping?” she says. “If you take medications, are you able to drive to pick them up, or can you have them delivered? Are you able to prepare your meals, or will you need some help?”
Next, consider whether you’ll be able to manage your own finances. What will your social outlets be? Is your home safe and properly outfitted for your changing needs? Folks with progressive and debilitating conditions such as dementia will need additional support and could require around-the-clock care at home. Look at whether you can afford this.
While about 75 percent of Americans say they prefer to age in place, many have not properly planned to do so, D’Agostini points out.
“Aging in place is a good choice if you have prepared for it, [you’re] going in with eyes wide open, [you’ve] made your home modifications so that it is a safe environment, and you have the necessary support system to help where there are gaps,” she says. “If you are proactive, and like to remain independent, this can be a great choice.”
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Consider upgrading your home
If the thought of home renovations is overwhelming, Gregg Hicks, VP of Modernize Home Services, has some advice.
“Some people are worried about how to start. They think of ramps but that’s jumping to the extreme,” Hicks says. “Think about small improvements that can make a big difference for safety and accessibility in the home instead.”
Hicks points out that slips and falls are some of the biggest dangers with retirees or elders living at home, but they are also some of the easiest concerns to address. Start by improving your home lighting, decluttering floor spaces, and smoothing transitions between rooms. That might be as simple as removing rugs or as intensive as widening door frames—but it’s certainly not as big a project as installing a wheelchair ramp.
Another problem area in the home is the bathroom, where slipping and falling happens easily on slick tile and in the shower or tub. Some fixes might be as simple as installing grips on your shower floor, or you might consider an entire shower upgrade as a way to sit while bathing.
Hicks suggests swapping knobs on faucets and door handles with levers, which are easier to grip, as well. Different hardware on kitchen drawers and cabinets can also help. Also important for any older homeowner is a security system, Hicks says.
If DIY projects aren’t in your wheelhouse, don’t worry. You can always hire out for these improvements, and not every job will require contractors and thousands of dollars. Daniel Edwards, owner of Handyman Connection of South Shore, Boston, suggests hiring a handyman for smaller fix-it problems that don’t involve renovations of entire rooms.
A handyman can install those shower grab bars, a shower bench, and a grippy film on your shower floor. They can also help to install seamless shower entries that lower the edge of your shower tub so you don’t have to step in and out of the bath each day. A handyman can help to widen your door frames, too.
“Come up with a punch list,” Edwards says. “Having a handyman do five to 15 things is more cost effective than paying someone to do one thing at a time at their day rate.”
Cini says that one way to get a grasp of the types of projects you might need to consider is to visit senior living facilities, even if you don’t think you want to live there. Cini says this is a great way to see what kinds of layouts and products are available to seniors in a facility engineered for their unique challenges. You might notice that the toilets are higher in the bathrooms or that the light fixtures operate by touch. The technology might impress you and get your gears turning for improvements to your own home.
Cini says the added benefit of visiting these facilities is that you’ll be able to price out the alternatives in case your plan to age at home goes wrong.
“Something could happen, and you could break a hip, and you’ve already done the investigation, and you could go there for a respite and not have to worry about doing it in crisis mode,” she says. “It’s like not going to the grocery store when you’re hungry. It’s a lot easier to highlight what you like and don’t like [at a senior living facility] when you’re not scared.”
Cini’s biggest tip for seniors hoping to age in place is to embrace technology. The pandemic has shown us how many services can be done remotely through an app—think grocery delivery and on-site car washing or laundry services. You can request an Uber through your phone if you’re unable to drive and have food from any restaurant delivered to your front door. There are even services that arrange for someone to pick up and wash your dirty laundry for you, returning it neatly folded. While some in-home healthcare workers will assist with these tasks, it’s often cheaper to outsource them, Cini says.
Zoom and Facetime have helped us to feel more connected in 2020 and 2021, and using these apps while aging in place can benefit seniors craving community and camaraderie. This technology wasn’t available 10 or 15 years ago but can benefit seniors going forward.
There have also been major upgrades in medical technology in recent years, Cini says, such as a bracelet that allows you to track your own heart health. You can add users to your account, as well, so your children and spouse can become alerted if your blood sugar drops or if you wake often throughout the night.
“We need to start looking at technology as a utility,” Cini says.
The technology out there is only as good as its user. In other words, if you aren’t comfortable using these apps now and you don’t feel you can learn them, relying on these methods isn’t going to be helpful. For just that reason, Hicks suggests only using tech you’re already comfortable with.
Edwards also finds that certain smart house features, such as thermostats or lighting fixtures, are only as good as your WiFi connection. Make sure you’re able to troubleshoot these features on your own if you plan to install these devices.
Hire traditional help
You can upgrade your home into a perfect physical structure for someone who is aging, but you might still need help living there. That’s where hired help comes into play.
Speak with a financial advisor to see what part of your retirement savings can cover costs related to home care and nursing staff. You might have enough money to pay for this, or your health insurance or Medicare may cover it.
“Some may be free, others covered by Medicare or health insurance, but you should explore this before making the decision to age in place,” D’Agostini says. “It may in fact be less expensive to stay in your home than to go to a facility.”
D’Agostini also says that veterans could qualify for this kind of care. If you’re wondering where to start, check with your local office in charge of senior services and aging to find resources.
Find a support system
If a year in isolation taught us anything, it’s that human connection is essential to our well-being.
“They say loneliness is the number one killer,” Cini says. “That’s a real thing. When you don’t have purpose or connection, it’s tough.”
Cini says it’s easy to hire nursing care or find someone to mow the lawn—what’s harder is finding ways to meet your emotional and mental needs.
“It’s making sure you have mental stimulation, finding someone to help you with your bucket list or set up vacations,” she says. “Maybe for you that means playing online games weekly. It’s about creating a structure outside of retirement.”
Here’s where technology can again help in bridging social gaps.
“It’s not just about the physical space,” Cini says. “How are you going to care for your body, mind, and spirit?”
Consider the cons
Cini says a lot of people end up staying in their homes and aging in place because they can’t otherwise afford to retire at a facility, but there are some people who do have the means to live in a retirement home that could benefit from some of the included amenities.
“There are a lot of people at home with incredible health issues and might be better off at a place where there was a gym and a physical therapist instead of staying home watching TV and getting Meals on Wheels delivered,” she says.
If you’re the kind of person who enjoys social interaction and is craving community, senior living can offer those things as well.
Cini knows of two best friends who chose to move into a retirement home together because they wanted to travel and to live in a place where their meals were prepared for them. They described the facility like living at a resort, she says.
“For them, choosing confidence and freedom meant going into senior living,” she says. “It should be prescriptive towards you personally. You shouldn’t think that because you’re 65 or 72 there’s something you should be doing.”