This may come as a shock to some of you, but I am not a native Mainer. Over the past 12 years since I moved to Maine I have come to love many things about this state.Bar Harbor in the fall, opening day at Gifford’s ice cream, and the way in which I was welcomed into the community even though I am “from away”. I even enjoy winter. I love the first snow fall each year and the way the trees hold the snow and frame the beautiful historic homes in residential Bangor.
One thing I have not been able to embrace is snow removal. Now I probably have it better than a lot of people. I do have a self propelled snow blower and a relatively small lot to clear. I also have the help of my wife, God bless her, who is obsessed with keeping our driveway clear. This, of course works in my favor, so I am not complaining. But after last winter she and I began to have the conversations about examining our options and what we wanted out of our home. After all, even though I will happily challenge any reader of this magazine to a best two out of three games in racquetball, I have now turned 61 years of age and need to face the reality of being an aging baby boomer edging inevitably closer to retirement. At the end of the conversation, my wife and I decided two things: 1) neither one of us wanted to bear the responsibility of snow removal; and 2) we were both ready to start looking at other housing alternatives.
Last summer we started examining our alternatives. We knew we wanted to stay within a 10 mile radius of both our jobs, and we definitely knew we wanted a smaller home with no outside yard maintenance tasks to perform. It became clear right away that we were in the market for a condominium. So over the next eight months we examined all our options and finally decided on a condo in Bangor that met all the requirements on our homeownership “wants” list. I don’t want to make it sound like the decision to sell our current home and move into a condominium was a decision that we reached easily. We talked for hours about how this would impact our lifestyle. Well. my wife did most of the talking and I just nodded in agreement, I had reservations knowing that this would probably be the last home that I would live in and that I was not sure if I was ready to make that “final transition” into condominium living. But the benefits of condo living were just too enticing to ignore: One level living, all the modern conveniences of a new construction home, and more importantly, someone else taking care of all outside maintenance. I have to say that after thinking about it, I could find very few drawbacks.
This entire process started me thinking about all the housing alternatives that today’s baby boomers have available to them as they age. I chose to move into a condominium, but I just as easily could have chosen to make modifications to my current home while finding outside contractors who could have assumed yard maintenance responsibilities. I know friends who have moved away for warmer weather living and others who chose to stay in a home that has been in the family for several generations. There is no one size fits all approach when it comes to where you want to spend your latter years. There is, however, one thing that all baby boomers have in common when it comes to determining how and where we will live during what could be as much as one third of our lives—the so-called retirement years—and that is we must engage in some planning. Leaving the decision about where you will spend your “golden years” up to chance or members of your family is probably not the preferred route to take.
It should come as no surprise that the vast majority of older adults prefer to age-in-place. I know I do. That means, we prefer to grow old in the familiar surroundings of our own home in the neighborhood and community of our choice. In order to maximize the chance that we will be able to do just that requires some good old fashioned planning including making sure that the home you live in will continue to meet your health care needs as your physical abilities change over time. Of particular importance is that no matter what type of housing you choose it must be relatively maintenance free, designed in a way that is “elder-friendly”, convenient to transportation and other services, and able to be equipped with products and equipment that will enable you to remain there if and when your health needs change.
It makes good sense to determine sooner rather than later whether your home meets your current and future livability requirements. AARP’s Home Livability Checklist is a good place to start to determine if you need to make changes or perhaps even consider searching for a more suitable home. Consider the following questions. Answering “yes” to all of these questions confirms that your home has passed the livability test with flying colors:
- Is there at least one step-free entrance into the home?
- Is there a bedroom, full bath and kitchen on one level?
- Are the doorways and hallways wide enough for a wheelchair to pass?
- Do the doorknobs and faucets have lever handles, which are easier to use than rounded knobs?
- Are the kitchen countertops mounted at varying heights, so they can be used while standing or seated?
- Can the kitchen and bathroom cabinets and shelves be easily reached?
- Does the bathtub or shower have a non-slip surface?
- Are there grab bars in the bathroom, or has the wall been reinforced so they can be added?
- Are the hallways and staircases well lit?
- Are there secure handrails on both sides of stairways?
- Can light switches, electrical outlets and thermostats be easily reached, even when seated?
- Can the windows be opened with minimum effort?
Want to learn more about making your home more livable for life? Take a look at AARP’s Home Fit Guide (http://www.aarp.org/home-garden/livable-communities/info-07-2011/aarp-home-fit-guide-aging-in-place.html) for good advice on maximizing your home’s comfort and livability.
It should also come as no surprise that a livable home will also be one that is safe. Remember that the majority of falls occur right in your own home where one in three older adults fall at least once yearly. The fact is many of those accidents could have been avoided by just making a few small safety improvements to the home in which you live. The National Institute on Aging (NIA) (go to: http://www.nia.nih.gov/health/publication/falls-and-fractures for more details) offers some very practical recommendations that can make your home the “safe zone” you need it to be. In addition to many of the home livability recommendations made by AARP above, the NIA suggests that:
In stairways and hallways you:
- Make sure that lighting is good with light switches at the top and bottom of stairs and at each end of a long hall.
- Keep areas where you walk tidy. Don’t leave things on the floor—you might trip on them.
- Check that all rugs and carpets are fixed firmly to the floor so they won’t slip. Put no-slip strips on tile and wooden floors.
In bathrooms you:
- Mount grab bars near toilets and on both the inside and outside of your tub and shower.
- Place non-skid mats, strips, or carpet on all surfaces that may get wet.
- Keep night lights on.
In your bedroom you:
- Put night lights and light switches close to your bed.
- Keep your telephone near your bed.
In other living areas you:
- Keep electric cords and telephone wires near walls and away from walking paths.
- Tack down all carpets and area rugs firmly to the floor.
- Arrange your furniture and other objects so they are not in your way when you walk.
- Make sure your sofas and chairs are the right height for you, so that you can get in and out of them easily.
- Don’t take chances. Keep the things you use regularly in the kitchen within easy reach.
- Don’t stand on a chair or table to reach something that’s too high—use a “reach stick” instead. Reach sticks are special grabbing tools that you can buy at many hardware or medical-supply stores. If you use a step stool, make sure it is stable and has a handrail on top. Try to have someone stand next to you.
- Don’t let your home get too cold or too hot—being very cold or very hot can make you dizzy. In the summer, if your home is not air-conditioned, keep cool with an electric fan, drink lots of liquids, and limit physical activity. In the winter, don’t let the nighttime temperature drop below 65 °F.
- Keep emergency numbers in large print near each telephone.
Taking some time to ensure your home is livable into the future could be one of the best decisions you ever make. Planning ahead is something I have done and I am just 61 years young and feel great. Don’t wait so long that the decision will be left in the hands of your loved ones: make your plans now; this is your opportunity to have the home you want so your golden years can truly be golden.
Dr. Len Kaye is the Director of the University of Maine Center on Aging and a professor at the University of Maine School of Social Work.