People who hope to age in place need to prepare for it, experts say
88% of adults age 50 to 80 feel it’s important to age in place, but 21% have given no consideration whatsoever to modifications needed to remain at home.
WORTHINGTON — While 88% of older adults want to age at home rather than receiving care in a nursing home, a significant number of them haven’t considered what changes they might need to make in order to do that, the National Poll on Healthy Aging recently revealed.
“You’re always adapting, you’re always changing to adapt to your current environment and what you’re able to do,” said Jason Swanson, executive director of the Minnesota River Area Agency on Aging, whose territory includes Nobles and other southwest Minnesota counties.
The poll, which is a “recurring, nationally representative household survey,” launched in 2017 by the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation, and it is also supported by AARP and Michigan Medicine.
Its most recent results show that while 88% of adults age 50 to 80 feel it’s important to age in place, 21% have given no consideration whatsoever to modifications needed to remain at home, and 26% had given “little” consideration. Thirty-eight percent gave some consideration to modifications and just 15% had thought about it “a lot.”
“The two big things to make your home safer… meaning that it allows you the ability to age in place, are removing trip hazards and making sure your house is well-lit,” Swanson said.
He advised starting the adaptations simply, with easy practices and approaches rather than immediately spending a lot of money on remodeling and major changes.
Keeping floors, stairways and hallways clear of clutter helps, but so does removing small throw rugs and area rugs.
“I know some generations love them, but those are not stationary. They move,” Swanson said. “Unless you have them glued to the floor or a slip strip put beneath it, or a mat beneath it, it will shift.”
Loose carpeting can be another tripping hazard, particularly in older homes where the carpet hasn’t been updated in a long time. Around thresholds, carpets can start pulling away and loosening up.
Pets, while they offer many health benefits, can also serve as a tripping hazard, and animals’ leashes or walking devices should be hung up rather than stretched out all over the floor.
Keeping rooms well-lit is important, as aging eyes don’t see as well in the dark as young ones.
“Add additional night lights, especially in the stairwell, hallway and in the bathrooms,” Swanson said. “Night lights go a long way.”
Built-in night lights that detect motion are even being installed in some new homes.
Recent technological advances in light bulbs mean that brighter bulbs that use less energy are available, and those bulbs often last longer and need to be replaced significantly less often as well, Swanson said.
Those who do wish to modify their homes a bit more can check into adding railings into the home, either on the outside or going up the steps. In bathrooms, water can act as a slipping hazard, so installing grab bars can help a lot.
“A lot of people, it gives them extra peace of mind,” Swanson said, explaining that people may not need it on good days but on bad days, it’s there to help them prevent falls. Grab bars are usually available at box stores and hardware stores, and can likely be ordered online too.
Shower chairs, which sit in the shower, and bath benches, which extend from inside the shower to outside of it and allow people to get in and out of the shower more easily, are also options.
He advised people seeking to add modifications should reach out to the Southwest Minnesota Opportunity Council, which has programs that can help.
Other possible home modifications could include adding electrical outlets to more convenient locations, even if it’s the middle of the floor, to reduce the number of cords present, and changing door knobs to door levers to help people with arthritis or weakened hands get the doors open. Even people who are young and healthy can benefit from lever door handles if they’re carrying something, Swanson pointed out.
Sometimes it simply isn't practical to age in place in a particular home, and people instead opt to build or seek an existing home elsewhere that would be more suitable.
Jason Johnson, a real estate broker with Johnson Builders & Realty in Worthington, has several suggestions for prospective buyers.
"Wide hallways are always a plus," Johnson said, emphasizing that even if someone isn't using a wheelchair when they move, they might still want or need to use one later on. Wide doors also make a difference, and Johnson Builders puts in 36-inch doors in its new construction.
Large bathrooms that are accessible are also important, and options for people building new homes include zero-entry showers that don't require stepping over obstacles. Johnson said that adding grab bars in bathrooms even before they're really necessary can help people avoid accidents.
And he too recommended decluttering to reduce the number of tripping hazards in a home.
Communication devices such as cell phones and alert buttons can help, too, but only if someone actually carries the device with them at all times.
Seniors can work on staying in shape, and particularly on improving their balance with evidence-based programs such as those offered by A.C.E. of Southwest Minnesota, formerly known as the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program of Southwest Minnesota.
While it isn’t available throughout southwest Minnesota yet, the Minnesota River Area Agency on Aging itself is working on expanding its Community Aging in Place Advancing Better Living for Elders program, which pairs medical personnel with repairers to visit homes and identify potential changes that could help someone age in place there.
The most important thing, though, is to understand that people are always adapting to change, and to be mindful that just because you could do something 10 years ago doesn’t mean you still can, he added.
“Everybody has that. It’s a human nature thing,” Swanson said. “People don’t want to change because they’re fearful of what that change will bring.”
He advised people to go and stand in their living room, imagine they’ve instantly advanced 20 years in age and look around to see what the barriers to staying in the home could be.
People who have questions about aging in place may call the Senior LinkAge Line at 1 (800) 333-2433. Information about A.C.E. is available at aceswmn.org. For more about the Minnesota River Area Agency on Aging, visit mnraaa.org.