Making modifications to the home can help your loved ones age in place, a goal of an increasing amount of families. There are plenty of resources online that offer checklists and other pieces of advice that cover the most common modifications. With hindsight being 20/20, here are the aging in place challenges I encountered when caring for my parents.
Don’t wait until there’s a family health crisis
I waited until my parents had major health issues before seriously considering their home situation, and how it complicated aging in place possibilities. If I could do it over, I would try to gently steer my parents into a more suitable retirement location. I think my parents could have thrived in a continuing care retirement community, or something similar. My parents maintained their independence well into their 70s, but then the health issues came in a fell swoop.
Aging in place is not just about home, but about community
Ruidoso, New Mexico is a lovely mountain town with genuinely nice, helpful people. My parents enjoyed their retirement there, until they became ill. Here are some things to keep in mind when your parents or other aging loved ones announce a retirement move:
- Local transportation options: Ruidoso gets snow, and some of the winding roads can be tricky to navigate. My parents’ condo was also atop a moderate hill. My dad was not a confident driver and had never driven on snow before. This meant my parents were stranded for days sometimes if a big snow fell. On the other hand, the town offered a reasonable door-to-door shuttle service for seniors. This helped my parents maintain their independence. Keep in mind that your loved one will likely not be able to drive forever and getting rides from friends and family is not always convenient.
- Is there access to quality medical services? This is so important, and had a tremendous impact on my parents’ final years. Smaller, rural towns may struggle to attract enough quality healthcare providers. This can lead to long waits for appointments, overworked doctors and delayed or incorrect diagnoses. More advanced diagnostic tools like PET scans may not be available locally and will require lengthy travel to have performed. Home care can be woefully overstrained, and access to nursing homes and memory care centers may be extremely limited or non-existent.
- Social engagement benefits: My parents were friendly, but kept to themselves, so they didn’t have a social network to fall back on when needed. Gauge your loved one’s community engagement in things like church, volunteer groups, and neighborhood associations, as it can facilitate help with rides to doctor’s appointments, shopping, etc. Friendly neighbors can watch out for each other and create a safety net for someone in declining health. Don’t overlook these valuable resources, and make sure that if you take advantage of them, to give something in return.
- Convenient for family members to visit? Encourage retirement options that offer reasonable access to an airport. To get to Ruidoso from Atlanta, I had to take two planes and an hour-and-a-half car ride, or one long plane trip and a 3-hour car ride. Neither of those options are convenient or cheap, and with the time changes, just traveling to and from my parents’ condo is an all-day affair. As a long-distance caregiver, you’ll find the need to make more frequent check-up visits and you don’t want to be wiped out before you even arrive.
About those home modifications
- Falls are a big deal: If you feel overwhelmed in making aging in place modifications, start with reducing fall risk. These modifications can be as simple as adding sturdy grab bars in bathrooms and removing throw rugs and other common trip sources from the home. Proper lighting is also important, as is making sure commonly-used items are easily accessible without getting on a step stool. In Mom’s condo, I installed grab bars and a shower bench in the bathroom. Consider getting a fall alert system. There are different companies that offer monitoring services, so research to see which ones are available in your area. I found the service was reliable and effective, and worth the monthly fee. If you are a long-distance caregiver, getting a system like this can give you a bit of peace of mind.
- Reverse kid-proofing: Think safety above all else, whether it comes to labeling things in clear, large print or securing items that could prove dangerous, like medications and stove burners. This is especially true when modifying the home for someone with dementia. My dad “ran away” multiple times from the condo, and that could have been prevented if we’d installed special locks and other deterrents. GPS-based locator tools can track a loved one with dementia who goes missing.
- Don’t forget maintenance tasks: I had an embarrassing realization recently. While taking care of my mother, I never changed the furnace filter. Likely years went by without it being changed. Yet in all that time, I never forgot to change the filter in my own home. Caregiving can give you tunnel vision; set up reminders or hire a local company to handle such tasks. The water heater at my parents’ condo is in an unbelievably tricky location under the house that requires one to crawl through a space several feet off the ground. The circuit breaker is located in the back of a storage room outside the condo, which has proven difficult to open. Ideally, these things would be easy to access for maintenance and in case of emergency.
- The home’s exterior matters: My father was not allowed to return home from the skilled nursing facility after major surgery because of the stairs. He never saw home again, as he was placed in a memory care center. Dad lost the ability to walk and the condo had a dozen steps to the front door and wooded, uneven ground that led to the back door, with three steps. A paved path around back may have been possible, but it would’ve had to go through the home owners’ association and Dad was rapidly declining. My mother also was wheelchair-bound after a surgery with lengthy complications. With two months of rehab, she could walk on her own again, and this made a huge difference in her being able to return home. Her condo was small and a walker would have been difficult to navigate the narrow hallways and bathroom. Make sure the paths to the mailbox, garden and any other often-used outdoor areas are safe to access. Aging in place modifications should make the home safe, comfortable and enjoyable for many years to come.
What are your tips on making the home safer as we age? Share your ideas below.
Joy Johnston is an Atlanta-based digital journalist who began The Memories Project blog in 2012 after her father died of Alzheimer’s. Her essays have appeared in best-selling anthologies, including Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer’s & Other Dementias.