As baby boomers age, society is having a senior moment. And more and more attention is being given to how to accommodate the elderly — whether “young” seniors who terrorize the pickleball courts or those who prefer a good book and a glass of wine under a shade tree. This week Escape Home contributor Timothy Harper talks about how to age in place when the place is your dream home.
Where we live can vary greatly as we age, but most of us aren’t very good at recognizing that — not until we have to, anyway. We want to age in place, and we want to choose the place. Often that’s a second home, the escape home where we see ourselves living out our golden years until we are carried out with our ski boots on. Or our flip-flops.
Nobody sees assisted living as the dream.
Yet when we choose that dream second home, we’re much better at planning for here and now rather than for the if and when. We foresee the fun, but not the future.
When we’re new to a second home, we’re good at envisioning the changes that will make the place more appealing to the relatively hale and hearty — and younger — people we are right now. We build up by adding second stories, decorative stone walkways and rustic wooden steps, install big windows for the views and renovate with cool claw-foot tubs.
In contrast, we’re not so good at foreseeing the changes we’ll probably need in the coming years — sometimes a very few years: the ramps, railings, grab bars and other concessions to our stiffening, weakening bodies in the third stage of life.
In recent days I’ve done a fair bit of research — asking for a friend, you know — about things to consider for aging in place when that place is a second home. It’s helpful to break down what we might need into three categories: the area where the home is located, the nature of the property, and inside the home itself.
First, whether seashore or mountain or woods, whether big city or small town or rural, consider the transportation: mass transit, roads, roads at night, and length of time however you may travel. How long does it take to get to the grocery store and medical care? One couple was thinking about getting a place in the Hudson Valley until they heard that it had taken half an hour for an ambulance to get to a wedding where a guest had fainted. (She turned out to be fine.)
Access to services. Are there neighbors who might be helpful? Consider access to nearby help: handymen, handywomen, lawn and garden workers and other services. Think about the cable, satellite, Wi-Fi and other connections for your communications and entertainment, including smart devices.
Second, your property. This isn’t so much an issue if your escape home is a full-service condo in a gated community or a big-city high rise, but can be really important if your home is situated on uneven ground. Are you still going to be able to skip down the hill to the lake or climb up and down the dunes to reach the beach? Many older residents dedicate space in their garages for a golf cart and use them not for golf courses but just to get up and down the inclines they used to trot over. Railings are also standard for many seniors for even mildly steep outdoor stairs or steps.
Contemplate outdoor maintenance, and how much of it you’ll be able to do when you can’t bend or lift as well or exert yourself for as long and as hard as you always have. What about when you’re not able to handle your own leaf blowing or log splitting? Can you still use one of those special long-handled rakes to drag the snow off your roof? Or skim your pool?
Market forces are responding, of course, as they always do when baby boomers need something. A new generation of outdoor tools helps wheel things around or split modest-sized logs. A great deal of gardening can now be done sitting rather than stooping or kneeling.
Look at the entrances from outdoors to indoors. The experts say every home for older folks should have at least one covered entryway. How difficult is it to carry groceries in or garbage out? The steps from the porch or driveway or garage may need railings. Increasingly, older homeowners are replacing high-riser steps or, when possible, having intermediate half-steps installed. In cold climes, sales have boomed for electric-heat mats that melt the snow off steps and stoops.
Indoors, homes that we once had to child-proof now may need to be geezer-proofed.
The goal is to avoid bending, stretching, climbing, reaching — and especially falling. Experts advise a single-story open plan with convenient and comfortable spots for whatever you want to do, including working or exercising.
In the kitchen, where a disproportionate number of senior accidents occur, don’t store things in high cabinets you can reach only by standing on a ladder or step stool or, worst of all, a kitchen chair. Similarly, avoid stashing things in low cabinets that require bending and lifting.
Appliances, including washers, drivers, ovens and fridges, should be at a convenient height that doesn’t require a lot of bending down. Similarly, it’s much easier to deal with electrical outlets at tabletop level rather than down on the floor behind the sofa.
The master bedroom should probably be on the ground floor, with a bathroom easy to access in the middle of the night. Step-in showers free of curbs are easier to navigate. That deep soaking tub with the claw feet? Forget it, unless you have someone strong enough to get you in and out if needed. Consider a toilet at “comfort height” — 17-19 inches tall instead of the standard 15 inches; those couple inches make it much easier to stand up.
Grab bars and guard rails should be installed not only in bathrooms but anywhere helpful, such as hallways. Windows are important throughout the home — more light makes it good for old fading eyes — but make sure the windows are not so big and heavy that they’re a strain to raise and lower. Doorways may need to be wheelchair width, and floors should not be slick or smooth.
And there’s more. Possibly much more. These tips are only a start for many of the challenges faced and changes required.
But there’s still a bright side. It’s not all grim. Inevitable, yes, but not necessarily dreadful. The cup can be half full. If you’re thinking about how to age in place in your escape home, you’ve got two very big things to be thankful for. One, you’re fortunate enough to have a place you’ve chosen. It’s where you want to be. And two, of course, you’re still around. If you’re planning how to get comfortable in old age, you’ve got a lot to be thankful for.