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How to grow old in your own home

Know these 6 success factors to help you age in place.

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Key takeaways

  • Develop a housing strategy that will serve your needs as you age. Staying in your home with modifications can be less expensive than moving to an assisted-living community.
  • Run a complete safety check, looking for potential hazards, including area rugs that may cause you to trip, loose stair railings, or furniture that obstructs pathways.
  • Avoid isolation. Find ways to stay in contact with friends, family, and neighbors on a daily basis—both via technology and in person.

When Marguerite Sullivan's spouse passed away, the 78-year-old had no interest in moving. She’s healthy, has many friends, and her 2 sons live nearby. Plus, she’s a confident driver and gets herself to doctor’s appointments and the grocery store.

Those are all important prerequisites for people who want to stay in their homes as they grow older, or "age in place."

“For those who wish to age in place, it’s important to think not only about a plan for staying in your home, but also about your support network,” explains Stacey Watson, head of life event planning at Fidelity. “Social connections are a critical element to living independently and aging well.”

Here are 6 things that aging singles or couples—and their children, other family members, or caregivers—should keep in mind when assessing the living situation. For more detail, read our Aging well: A planning, conversation, and resource guide.

1. Develop a real estate and housing strategy

As you plan for living in your later years in retirement, you should have a strategy for how to leverage any real estate assets along with a plan to support your need for future housing.

Real estate is an asset often used to fund retirement and to help pay for long-term health care expenses. Some people find it necessary to sell the family home to pay for higher levels of care or senior living accommodations. Some decide to sell after a spouse dies. Others may have a family member who moves back in to help take care of both the aging parent and the property. Whatever your situation, it makes sense to work with a financial advisor to help determine the role of real estate in your overall financial planning (see Senior Housing Options chart below).

"As you consider your strategy for housing as you age, remember that your approach may have to adjust over time," says Watson. "What works today in terms of independent living, living with family, assisted living, or skilled nursing may not serve your needs indefinitely. Take the time to have the conversation regularly with family members or caregivers, to ensure your plans continue to meet your needs."

2. Explore the benefits of staying put

There are many reasons why aging in place can be a win. For starters, staying in your home can be less expensive than moving to an assisted-living community. There are the upfront costs of moving, an often steep entrance fee, and monthly payments for room and board, which can easily top $3,000 a month.

Even more important are the psychological payoffs of not moving away from one’s friends, medical professionals, and faith community. Though these factors are hard to place a financial value on, they are a vital component of healthy aging.

3. Do a home safety check

“The first step in an aging-in-place plan is to run a complete safety check of your home to identify hazards," says Watson. "The good news is that many of the improvements that make it safer to stay in your house can be relatively easy and inexpensive.”

Sullivan’s children did just that. They walked around her house with an eye for any potential hazards that might cause trouble should her vision or mobility begin to deteriorate. Then they hired a home modification professional to help make needed changes.

Many of the improvements that may make it easier to stay in your house—such as raising electrical outlets to make them more accessible, and installing brighter outdoor lighting—aren’t expensive.

Sullivan’s home was retrofitted by installing secure handrails alongside the stairs to the front door, switching doorknobs to levers, adding automatic lights to hallways, removing rugs that might become tripping hazards, and placing grab bars in the shower.

4. Assess transportation

If you are at the point that you can no longer drive or walk to the grocery store or reach other important services, consider other transportation options.

If you have access to public transit, great. But it doesn't exist in a lot of places. Meanwhile, the driverless car may still be a few years away. So you may need to make other arrangements, such as ride sharing with friends and neighbors, or transportation assistance that many companion-care services offer. When it comes to groceries and getting things like prescriptions filled, automatic delivery or online delivery can be a great option. A family or friend can help manage orders and accounts and can track order history to help make sure you are getting what you need.

Senior Housing Options

When assessing the option that's right for you, consider the following:

  1. Health: How is your overall health?
  2. Activity level: How active and independent are you?
  3. Life stage and style: What kinds of access and activities are important to you?

5. Tap into a supportive community or network

Isolation can be a stumbling block to aging well. And it can creep up slowly. No matter how safe the inside of a home is, if there isn’t enough interaction with a community, a plan can fall apart.

Part of aging in place successfully is being able to stay connected, and not fall into the depression that many people experience because they are isolated.

Getting comfortable on a computer so you connect online with your children, grandkids, and others is a good strategy. You might also investigate some of the companionship services available in the community, through websites such as Caregiving.org or tap into local Council on Aging resources.

Pull together a list of friends and relatives who can take you to a doctor’s appointment, or someone to help with errands. If your family doesn’t live nearby, you may want to have a pipeline to neighbors you can call for periodic checkups, especially if you live in an area of the country that experiences power outages and severe weather.

A growing number of communities use the "village" concept for services and support to seniors. The idea, originating in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston, is to create a nonprofit organization that arranges for services—including transportation, home repair, and social activities—for a fee.

6. Make it an ongoing process

A myth of living in retirement is that people think they can make a plan once, and they’re done. Any plan needs to be reviewed regularly by you and your family member or caregiver.

What if you experience a health event, such as a bout of pneumonia that requires a lengthy hospital stay, or a fall that affects your cognitive ability or mobility? These are going to be very important points when you have to take a look at whether the plan you put in place is still going to work going forward.

Are you a concerned friend or family member? If so, check the home of your loved one after it is retrofitted and keep an eye open to see how your loved one is adapting to the changes. You may want to look out for any unexplained bruising on the aging person’s arms or legs that might be an indicator that they may be having trouble moving around. Also, look around the home when you visit. Is there a pile of mail? Are things in disarray? Check the refrigerator. Is it bare? Is food spoiling?

"In an ideal world, we will all age gracefully in place," says Watson, "but that often doesn't happen without careful preparation. Take the time to sit down and get the aging-in-place conversation going."

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