Skip to Content
Ecology of Money

Can You Age in Place?

Here's how to determine if you'll be able to safely negotiate your current home in coming years.

Some retirees search for a smaller home. You don't need as much room as you used to and don't want to be bothered with home maintenance.

But for millions of others, remaining in your current home--oftentimes, your home of many decades--is the preferred choice. Some 90% of retires surveyed say they want to stay put, according to the AARP Public Policy Institute. Staying put may allow you to remain closer to children and grandchildren or involved in your community. Or you may simply not be interested in moving at all.

The question that many don't ask, though, is will you be able to "age in place"--that is, be able to safely negotiate your home if and when your physical and mental faculties decline?

Many homes were not built to accommodate folks with various levels of physical limitations. You may need to modify your home to accommodate your changing needs. And in some instances, you may need to decide if the costs associated with modifying your current home are worth it.

Is Your Home 'Age-Friendly?' A Checklist
Very few homes are built with aging homeowners in mind. Two-story suburban homes with steps are hostile to those with hip, knee, and other joint issues. Even city walk-ups can be a burden.

According to the AARP, a "HomeFit" house can make it easier for you to live there over time without a physical struggle. Such a domicile would feature bedrooms, bathrooms, and kitchens on the ground floor.

In the kitchen, working surfaces would be able to be used while sitting down. Cabinets would be lower and easy to access. Hallways would be at least 36 inches wide to accommodate a wheelchair.

Then there are more subtle features that improve accessibility. When my family found a one-story town house for my 89-year-old father, just about everything seemed right for him--except for the front door. He needed an extra step to be able to get into his front door (he cleverly added a paving stone to reduce the height to the threshold).

Some other essential home elements when aging include bright lighting in hallways and stairwells; sturdy handrails and grab bars in bathrooms; easy-to-use locks; and nonslip surfaces everywhere, particularly in bathrooms and kitchens.

AARP provides an extensive list of age-friendly features here. The National Association of Homebuilders, an industry trade association, also provides a comprehensive aging-in-place checklist here.

Here's a short list of potential age-friendly features for your home:

  • A clear/turn space of 5 feet by 5 feet in living area, kitchen, a bedroom, and a bathroom.
  • Bright lighting everywhere, particularly around doors.
  • Accessible path of travel to the home.
  • At least one no-step entry with a cover.
  • There needs to be 32 inches of clear door width, which requires a 36-inch door.
  • Entry door sidelight or high/low peephole viewer; sidelight should provide both privacy and safety.
  • Lowered windows or taller windows with lower sill height. Easy-to-operate hardware for windows and doors.
  • Wider than average carports/garages to accommodate lifts on vans.
  • Door heights on garages may need to be nine feet to accommodate some raised-roof vans. Five-foot minimum access aisle between accessible van and car in garage.

 

Should You Modify or Move?
You can't turn a three-story home into a ranch without spending six figures. In these instances, you may be better off finding a more aging-friendly home elsewhere.

Newer homes may feature "universal design" that will have all of the features you need. An architect friend recently designed such a home, which even has a built-in elevator shaft for future use.

If you choose to remodel rather than relocate, you'll need to decide how much should you spend. That depends upon how much you want to dip into your nest egg. Will the remodel impair your retirement cash flow down the road? What are the must-haves versus the like-to-dos?

It's critical that you find a reputable contractor to do the work and consult with you on what your home really needs to make it age-in-place friendly. The NAHB provides referrals of certified "aging-in-place specialists" who've met their educational standards; access the list here.

Of course, the total bill for any home remodeling project may entail other projects unrelated to aging in place. That may include roof, siding, and interior repairs, as well as replacement appliances and upgrades to heating and air conditioning over time. These perennial, large-cost items associated with any home ownership shouldn't be overlooked.

Plan Ahead
Don't wait until you face a mobility issue to decide whether you want to stay in your home. Look ahead.

When we were building a home some 20 years ago, my wife and I chose a model that had two bedrooms connected to a bath on the main floor. Although we still had a second story and basement, the house was designed so that nearly everything essential--including a washer and dryer--could all be on the first floor.

"The majority of those turning 65 to 70 don't engage in this thinking process," notes Stephen Golant, a professor at University of Florida who's a well-regarded national expert on aging in place. "Those that do, do so in response to a crisis or sentinel event."

Golant, author of Aging in the Right Place (Health Professions, 2015), says that although many homeowners choose to age in place, the experience "often doesn't work out well" because "they don't plan for threats to their safety and don't face up to their vulnerability to accidents in their own home."

"A significant number of people fall not because they are frail, but because they overestimate what they can do," Golant adds.

Even so, trying to envision a time in which you're physically unable to safely stay in your home is difficult. Many may not even want to contemplate a raft of safety improvements because it suggests an eventual, dreaded loss of independence. And the thought of assisted living is anathema. Yet there are still more alternatives available.

Golant suggests that homeowners consider home-sharing, where another person rents or is a part-time caregiver, although privacy issues should be carefully considered. An octogenarian neighbor of mine, for example, converted her basement into an apartment for a renter--a young, single woman in her 30s who has often taken care of her before and after heart surgery for the past several years.

Yet another option--one that supplements safety improvements--is to bring needed professional assistance into the home. Most local agencies provide home care services that range from basic chores to medical transportation. They can even provide 24/7 in-home assistance. Find out more about at-home caregivers here.

In making the best decision on aging in place, be sure to include your family in discussions. Will children or other relatives be nearby to help you? Will they have the time? If you choose to relocate, you'll need to ask those questions again.

At the very least, says Golant, "don't err on the side of comfort"--that is, don't stay in a home just because you're emotionally attached. There are a wide range of alternatives. If you take your time to review all of the choices, you can find a solution that's accommodating as well as safe.

John F. Wasik is a freelance columnist for Morningstar.com and author of 14 books, including "Keynes's Way to Wealth: Timeless Lessons from the Great Economist." The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Morningstar.com.