The majority of us have put a stake in the ground for anyone who cares to listen. We are going to age in our own homes. We will exercise our freedom to choose to age on our terms and in our own way. The term “Age in Place” shows up everywhere but no one tells us exactly what that means, how we can do this vibrantly, and how this choice affects our health as we move from our 50s to our 60s and our 70s.
What is Aging in Place?
The CDC defines “aging in place” as "the ability to live in one's own home and community safely, independently, and comfortably, regardless of age, income, or ability level." At first glance, it seems like the ability to age in our home is simply a matter of keeping ourselves as healthy and active for as long as possible. That’s an incredibly important piece of the puzzle. Familiarity with our community, neighborhood, and home provides us the confidence to move about, stay engaged with friends and neighbors, and have access to health-enhancing activities that we are familiar with like our primary care doctors, parks and walking trails, and classes like yoga, art, and more.
In short, the ability to age successfully in our own home isn’t just about our physical ability. It includes our connections within our community and neighborhood, and our involvement with everything our community has to offer us.
The Risks of Isolation
With all of these benefits to staying at home, there are downsides that we need to watch out for. A new study at Brigham Young University has shown that prolonged loneliness and being socially isolated is the health equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. On the flip side, friendships and meaningful relationships with others supports our immune system, reduces our stress levels, and can actually reduce the risk of developing dementia.
The author of the study and psychology professor, Tim Smith, said that the United States is facing a possible "loneliness epidemic," revealing that more people live alone today than at any other time in recorded history.
The study’s co-author, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, has said that loneliness should be considered a serious health issue. “Just as one starts planning financially long before retirement, we should also consider our social resources in planning for retirement," she has written. As with any health issue, it is easier to work on preventing being lonely than trying to work our way out of it.
These social resources include planning how we will stay connected and involved in our community. Do we have family – siblings, adult children, and grandchildren – nearby? Do we have both long-term friendships and a way to meet and make new friends? Services like Silvernest are providing ways to meet like-minded people – in this case to make a roommate match. Having a someone live in your home with you helps to create a new friendship and provides a bit of safety net should you need help.
Home Adaptations for Aging in Place
Now is also a great time to plan and execute changes to our home. Most of us don’t like the look of some of the things we see in homes that scream “I’m getting older” like ugly grab bars in our bathrooms, but the design of these features have come a long, long way. It pays to shop around and find things that are safe and aesthetically beautiful.
Most often it is the little things that end up limiting us – like kitchen utensils or the height of our toilet. These can be simple to fix and there are great alternatives that people of any age would want to embrace. If you aren’t already familiar with them, check out the universal design features of OXO kitchen products, or bathrooms from Kohler that are designed well without feeling old.
Projects like leveling floors from room to room, living on a single level, and widening doorways are all important adaptations, but they are also more costly; this is particularly true of homes in older, desirable neighborhoods. Experts advise that if we are making a plan to age in our home for the long term that we make adjustments while we are working and have an income to support the costs. Also, the disruption of home improvement can be less when it isn’t occurring following an accident or health problem.
Think about the things around your home that seem annoying or limiting to you now. This will only be exacerbated as you get older.
Technology for the Ages
There is a lot of technology in development to help our elderly parents stay connected and as independent as possible. Additionally, there are apps for us as caregivers to be better informed on their care and activities. But what about us?
We are blessed by the rise of the “sharing economy” and the ability to have almost anything delivered right our front door. Ten years ago we couldn’t have imagined getting into a stranger’s car or living with a roommate as we age, but companies like Uber, Lyft and Silvernest have made it the norm – and these are also services we will rely on more as we get older.
To be certain, our generation has many advantages that our parents couldn’t have imagined as they aged. The most important advantage we have right now is our planning window for aging in place. With a bit of thought we can make plans that support both our physical and mental health, and keep our homes the vibrant and safe places they are today.