This month we’re diving into a topic that AAA House Manager is being asked to help with more and more — aging in place. Last week we took a look at the growing trend of seniors staying in their homes long term and discovered some simple tips for making a home more age friendly.
But we still had more questions, so we turned to Susanne Stadler, executive director of the Bay Area organization At Home with Growing Older and an architect who specializes in inclusive and life cycle design. Susanne was able to help us answer some of our more burning questions about aging in place.
Q: We recently learned that a 2018 AARP survey showed 3 out of 4 Americans over the age of 50 want to stay in their current residence as long as possible, and a recent study by Freddie Mac found that more Americans age 67 and older are aging in place longer than previous generations. Does that fit the trends you’re seeing here in the Bay Area?
A: More and more I’m seeing that people want to shape their own aging experience and many times, staying in their home allows them to do that. Some are deciding to live alone or with a partner, while others are choosing communal living — opting instead to live in intergenerational housing units or inviting people in their age cohort to move in with them.
Q: We don’t often think about communal living as an option for aging in place.
A: It’s actually quite common. It makes sense from a financial and social standpoint and it can be a great way to give back to someone of a different generation, especially here in the Bay Area where the cost of living is so high.
Q: What are some key issues or considerations people should keep in mind if they are thinking about staying in their home?
A: Maintaining a home is difficult, so there should be a plan in place for that long term. If everything is working properly, it’s going to make staying in your home much more comfortable. I also like to remind people that you don’t need to adapt to your environment — it should adapt to you. Many times people get stuck. They think; “it’s been like that forever” or “it’s not really broken so I don’t need to fix it.” But this is your home and it needs to work for you. You have every right to make changes. If there are financial concerns about making renovations or modifications, remember that there are solutions for nearly every budget. Some cities even have programs to help those with disabilities get what they need. Here in the Bay Area, resources can often be found through city hall.
Q: What are some of the first improvements or adjustments that should be made to a home that is going to be used for aging in place?
A: I always advise people to start with the bathrooms and the entrance to the home. Personal hygiene gets more difficult as we age and we need to spend more time in the bathroom. It should be as lovely, comfortable and functional as possible — consider it another living room. I suggest bright lighting, wall-hung sinks that would allow for a chair to be placed underneath, curbless showers with room for sitting, and high faucets for hair washing if it’s not possible to make it into the shower. It’s your bathroom so it should work best for you — you don’t have to follow rules.
For the front entry, remove any potential trip hazards and add lighting if needed. Remember that you will likely be having visitors who are older as well, so even if you don’t have mobility problems, you should keep in mind the ease of entry for others.
Q: How would you suggest prioritizing other projects around the home?
A: Everybody is different, so start by figuring out what room is most important to you and put your energy there. For example, if you love cooking, invest in making your kitchen more convenient and comfortable. Make sure you have appropriate cabinet handles and appliances that are easy to open. Remove (or lower) upper cabinets, and create a space that can be used for sitting and chopping. If gardening is a priority, make sure there is easy access to and from the yard without any trip hazards. Tools should be easy to reach and garden beds should be raised.
Q: What about potential safety issues?
A: Balance can be an issue as we get older, so there should be rails on both sides of staircases. This is very important. Vision is another concern. As much as possible, use contrasting colors in places where there is a change in flooring, especially at the end of staircases, and paint transitions so they can be seen easily. Create a visible contrast between the floor and walls. For those with memory issues, using colors to signify use can be helpful, like with a sink and toilet. And make sure there is appropriate lighting in every area of the home. Stick-on lights can very easily be added in places where there is no electricity.
Q: What advice would you have for someone with a parent who is considering staying in their home long term?
A: Start with helping your parent figure out what’s important to their happiness. Participate in a home walk-through with them, leaving green Post-Its or stickers on features that they like and work well, and red ones on things they find annoying and would like to change. Then have a conversation around it and see what adjustments can be made. Facilitating their decision making and involving them in the process is extremely important. We teach this in our Aging 360 workshops. Remember that this can be a difficult time for an aging parent, especially if they feel they have fewer and fewer choices. You might not agree with your parent’s decisions, but it’s an opportunity to open up a dialogue.
Q: Any last suggestions for anyone considering aging in place?
A: Don’t forget the delight factor. This is your home and it should make you happy, so be sure to keep the things that make you smile. And try not to feel overwhelmed by what you want to change. Doing 30 percent is better than doing nothing. If you can’t afford to put real drawers into lower shelves, just take off the doors and put in baskets. If you can’t renovate the entire bathroom, at least put in hand shower. Tackling a few small projects now when they can be enjoyed, will be much easier than when there is a crisis.
More about At Home with Growing Older
At Home with Growing Older is an interdisciplinary learning platform on aging. Its goal is to improve the experience of later life through education and connecting people with the resources they need. They hold monthly forums where community members come together with professionals who serve the aging population and share information. With its Aging 360 program, workshops are held for older adults on how to make their home a long term ally. In two or three sessions, they learn age friendly design. They’re encouraged to be an inspector in their own home, identify what works for them and what doesn’t, then choose what they’d like to change and put together an action plan. Learn more at athomewithgrowingolder.org.
We mentioned communal and intergenerational living as an option for aging in place, and there are several sites online to visit for information. Silvernest helps find housemates for seniors, and Home Match San Francisco helps homeowners with extra rooms connect with home seekers who need an affordable place to live.