If you are a longtime homeowner and thinking ahead to your next stage of life, you’re probably familiar with the idea of aging in place. You might already be considering renovation projects, such as installing grab bars in your bathroom or widening your doorways, to help you stay put. You’re not alone in your pursuit: About 76% of Americans age 50 and older say they want to stay in their homes, and 77% hope to remain in their neighborhoods as long as possible, recent AARP research shows.
But renovations are just a part of what you need to make aging in place work for you. While it’s typically less expensive to remain in your home than to pay for assisted living, that doesn’t mean it’s a slam dunk to stay put. You’ll still have a long to-do list. Just one example: You need to plan ahead for how you will manage maintenance and care–for your home, and for yourself, as you age and face health challenges.
And be aware that strengthening your social fabric now might be just as important as shoring up your finances and installing a curbless shower. Building a network of support among friends and neighbors, and establishing strong ties in your community, from volunteering to just enjoying casual conversations at the local coffee shop, play important roles in keeping older adults healthy and functioning, experts say. You won’t age in place well if you’re isolated and alone, a reality you don’t want to overlook as you consider your housing and financial options.
“The social connections you have and the access to services in your community are often more important than anything else,” says Jessica Finlay, a University of Michigan researcher who studies older adults and their neighborhoods (learn more about her research
at jessicafinlay.com). “You need a reason to get out of bed in the morning and to get out the front door.”
Aging in place also can be more challenging than you might expect. While most seniors say they want to age in place, a much smaller percentage of them actually manage to accomplish it, studies show. Transportation is often a problem; when you can no longer drive, you can’t get to medical appointments or to other outings. Long-term-care costs, even when you stay at home, outpace savings. Older homes can be costly to maintain and downsizing to a smaller one closer to a city center may be more expensive than you thought.
The worst-case scenario is finding yourself “stuck in place,” as Freddie Mac chief economist Sam Khater puts it. You’re still in your home, but you aren’t able to age well because you can’t afford to make needed improvements and you’re increasingly isolated.
But the good news is that you can start now to make aging in place successful, even if you are still a few years away from a final decision. Even getting the idea on your radar allows you time to save up for individual renovation projects, such as a ramp, and to make an overall plan. It’s not easy to think about how you’re going to age and what life will be like when your mobility is limited, but forcing yourself to begin preparing now will pay off later.
That’s the approach Wendy Zenker, 66, a retiree in Arlington, Va., took when she considered renovations five years ago to her large, two-story brick home. She’s healthy and active, but she broadened her initial plans for just adding a porch in the back to creating a one-floor living space for when she needs it eventually.
“I wasn’t initially thinking about aging in place, but I started to worry about what would happen if I fell down and broke a leg or something,” she says. “I know everyone on my block, and it’s important for me to stay here, with this network of friends and neighbors. So I decided to figure out how to prepare for that.”
The definition of aging in place is flexible and still evolving, as more older Americans find new kinds of arrangements to stay in their homes. It often means one-floor living. Or it might mean sharing your home, if the rent will help you afford to keep it. Or you might sell your longtime home and move into a smaller one, closer to amenities, where you plan to grow old–your “forever home.”
Regardless of which arrangement fits you, use these five moves now to help you age in place successfully. If there’s truly no place like home for you, there are ways to make it work.