Age in place. It sounds so warm and fuzzy that most people entering their retirement years say that's exactly what they would like to do. It seems like an easy choice. But it's really one of life's most difficult decisions — and it faces us just when we've earned the right to live as worry-free as possible.
The choice is this: Do you want to "age in place," that is, remain in your home among familiar surroundings; or would it be better to move into an environment that provides the ongoing resources and services you need to live a happy, secure and fulfilling life?
The general belief is this: if you are healthy, active and live near family members, the decision is easy. You should stay put. And today, with aging-in-place services abounding — including everything from in-home health attendants to delivered convenience meals — there really is no good reason to consider changing your living arrangements.
Or is there?
Because everyone is unique, and there are no proven formulas to determine the best course of action, let's take a closer look at nine key factors to consider when deciding if aging in place is right for you:
- Physical health changes
We prefer to deny it, but as we age our bodies grow weaker. Even if our minds remain sharp, our physical abilities diminish. Should you need emergency care, is someone nearby to help you get it? Or are you on your own? If you have an extended hospital stay, is there someone to take care of your home? And care for you when you get back home? Many people have obtained significant peace-of-mind for themselves and their loved ones by relocating to a Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC) that enables one to live independently now and offers increasing levels of support and medical care should the need arise. Others have found that moving into a retirement community, even one without onsite health care, can offer added security and help when needed.
- Mental health changes
I first realized that my mother’s mental state was changing when she got lost driving home from my son’s wedding. Then she started repeating herself, telling me the same thing three or four times within a five-minute phone conversation, then calling me back to tell me the same thing again. Physically, she was as healthy as she had ever been. But, she soon stopped preparing meals, bathing regularly, or on some days, even getting out of bed. Our initial strategy was to obey her wishes and keep her at home. Plus, we thought moving her to the unfamiliar surroundings of an assisted living community would be too confusing for her.
We brought in a home health care worker for several hours a day, a few days a week. We soon realized, however, that for her own safety and well-being, she really needed round-the-clock supervision. The cost for that at home was unaffordable. Moving her to an assisted living community gave her the care, and us the peace of mind, that neither she nor we could get by letting her age in place. And, because she was receiving the care and direction she needed, she adjusted more quickly that we could have ever imagined.
- Everyday tasks
When you’re strong and healthy, you think you’ll never need help with everyday tasks like raking leaves, vacuuming floors, or even washing dishes. But as we age, these chores become more difficult. What about more personal tasks, like bathing? If you need help, have you identified the family member who will assist you? If that family member becomes unavailable, will you need a home health aide? If you do not have family or friends nearby, then you have fewer sources of available unpaid care, and a higher cost for living independently. A wide range of home services may be accessible to you, but how much will they cost? The average cost of a home health aide worker is about $20 an hour. With a few hours of help everyday, you can easily spend $2500 a month. Would that money be better invested in a residence within a retirement or assisted living community where not only the help you need is provided, but you have additional amenities such as security, provided meals, and much more?
- Home Maintenance
Don’t forget about the more labor-intensive home maintenance tasks that you don’t think twice about doing yourself now. Cleaning out the gutters becomes a daunting task if you have begun to feel unsteady on a ladder. Even changing overhead light bulbs, washing windows and dragging the garbage cans to the curb can be difficult. Even if you're a handyman and you've got the best dust collector, at this age, sawdust can become a big health hazard. The independence you achieve by remaining in your home is easily compromised by the struggle to perform these once-routine tasks. Many people who have relocated into retirement communities discover that freedom from home maintenance is the greatest freedom of all.
As neighborhoods age and commercial districts encroach upon residential areas, security becomes a genuine issue. Security systems are not foolproof, response times can be slow, and many older homes do not have adequate safeguards, such as deadbolts and exterior lighting. Retirement communities are generally secure. Grounds and entrances are usually monitored, and many have round-the-clock security staffs. In addition, many retirement residences come equipped with emergency call buttons, which summon immediate assistance, whether for a health problem or a safety issue.
- Social Life and Companionship
When they retire, many people are excited by the freedom to finally spend some time by themselves, enjoying hobbies like reading and gardening. Many of these soon long for the social intercourse of their workplace. Even those not in the work force find their circle of friends gradually diminishes, and living alone adds to the isolation.The opportunity to make new friends and enjoy new experiences is an often-overlooked benefit of moving to a retirement community. In most communities, there are planned activities ranging from bridge tournaments to lectures to dance classes to shopping expeditions — even golf outings and woodworking equipment. If you don’t like planned activities, you can make new friends to enrich your life, people you may never have met by staying in your home. Senior Living is a time for adventure and fresh experiences, not a time to become a recluse.
If driving becomes difficult, you will have to rely on family or friends for shopping transportation, for trips to the doctor’s office, even if you want to just visit a friend. Most retirement communities provide regular transportation to shopping malls, grocery stores, movie theaters, doctors offices, and other routine trips.
- Meals and Nutrition
Cooking can become more of a chore and less of a pleasure — especially if you’re cooking for one. Unfortunately, this leads to irregular mealtimes and poor nutrition. And, poor nutrition causes illness and chronic bad health. Many retirement communities have attractive dining rooms with meal plans. Residents find that mealtimes are among the most enjoyable times of the day. The food is nutritious and appealing, and it’s a wonderful occasion to socialize with your friends.
- Home Modifications
Finally, to remain in your home, you will very probably need to make modifications. These can be very simple, such as the addition of grab bars in the shower or tub; or significant and costly, such as adding a bedroom and/or bathroom to the main floor, or even installing an elevator or a ramp. Retirement communities are built with an aging population in mind. They are safer, more convenient, and healthier places in which to live.
Making Your Decision
The majority of seniors, either by choice or necessity, are aging in place. In fact, everyone wants to age in place — until that first episode occurs that makes you realize that everything is changing. We’re all getting older, and the neighborhood is not the same as it was. The world is evolving (or devolving) more rapidly every day, and our familiar touchstones are disappearing.
I, like you, want to age in place. But when the time comes, I will try to remember the best advice anyone can ever receive about making the “senior living decision”: Don’t wait until it’s too late.