Aging in place is becoming a more and more popular option for people approaching their senior years. AARP has long been examining this topic, and it now pops up everywhere, with articles that paint a tempting picture of people walking around their beloved homes, doing everything they used to as they enjoy glowing health in their golden years. They often show photos of able-bodied, highly active seniors.
But what if your life doesn't look like that picture? What if you're adapting to mobility issues or a chronic health condition? What if you’re returning from a major surgery, or recovering from an accident? Does this mean you have no choice but to go to an assisted living or nursing facility?
The short answer is no. The longer answer is that, while health situations differ, there still an excellent chance that you can continue to live in your home as you grow older. You'll need a solid plan, contingency plans and a support structure. Glue all of these pieces together with determination and a problem-solving mindset. Then you'll have a good chance of aging in place at home with your health and mobility issues addressed.
Talk to Your Healthcare Team
Your first step is to chat with the people on your healthcare team. Let them know that you want to prepare for aging in place in your existing home. They'll have some good advice for you. Important questions to ask in this conversation probably begin with, what do they think your health or mobility will look like in one year, five years, longer?
Ask your providers what services they would recommend for you. What kind of supportive devices would they suggest? Find out if they have other patients with similar conditions aging at home, and if so, how is that working out? Finally, ask if they can think of any pitfalls they need to warn you about.
Create a Plan
With the input of your healthcare team, create a solid plan for making this happen. What does solid' mean? Write out specific goals, how you'll accomplish them, and when they need to be done. Don't forget about contingency plans if you don't hit the mark.
Here's an example of a clear, solid goal for a person recovering in hospital and returning to home therapy:
I need to be able to roll my wheelchair for an eighth of a mile, which is the distance from my front door to the mailbox and back.
I'll have to hit this goal by March 11, when I hope to be discharged from the hospital and go home.
To reach this goal, I'll work with my physical therapist to build up my arms' strength.
If I'm not able to roll an eighth of a mile by March 11, I'll ask a neighbor to bring in the mail while I continue my physical therapy.
This is just for one slice of life. All of the years ahead of you can be gamed out the same way, noting milestones and requirements at each turn.
Bring the Pieces Together
Now that you know what has to happen and by when, begin adapting your home. You'll also want to build the structure and support that you'll need for independent living.
Start ordering assistive or monitoring devices. Get onto waiting lists for home-visit services – with the population aging and an ever-growing need for services, these lists can be long and crowded with applicants. Start the process as early as possible. Also, consider how your extended family feels about the future. Many grown children are combining households with elders nowadays, and multi-generational living is becoming a part of American life.
Have a ballpark estimate for any expensive machines or assistive services that you may need down the line. Start saving for them or sourcing lower-cost items when you can. If your health situation suddenly changes, you won't be caught off-guard.
Build a Community of Support
Reach out to in-person or online support groups for people in the same boat as you. They'll probably have a wealth of advice and encouragement. While you're at it, don't discount advice from general senior support groups – aging in place brings challenges to people of all health situations and mobility levels. Not every hurdle you face will be related to your health needs.
As you implement your stay-at-home plan, don't forget about your healthcare team. Rehabilitation specialists, such as a physical therapist, may help you with troubleshooting issues where you're struggling. Your home-visit nurse may also need to check the medical devices in your room to make sure they're the right models and have the right functions for you. The NIH has a compilation of resources that may be useful here also.
Ask your friends, family, or neighbors to check in with you, especially in the first few months of transitioning back into your home. This could be something as quick as a daily text. That way, if you struggle early on or there's an accident, someone will know to get you help.
Executing a Plan Can be Tricky
Even the longest, most detailed plan won't cover every possibility. Expect to encounter problems along the way. Maybe those grab bars aren't working out, or you're finding it too tiring to move your wheelchair over your carpeted floors multiple times a day. These may not even be mentioned in your five-year plan, but take heart. A big part of aging, whether you're able-bodied or living with serious conditions, is about problem solving and adapting.
Work smarter, not harder, and keep a positive attitude. People living with extremely severe impairments have managed to stay in their own homes, given the right support. There's every chance that you'll also be able to keep your comfort and independence as you age in place.