Many homes in the U.S. are not what you describe as age-friendly.
Case in point: Of the 28.5 million households with an older adult, more than one-quarter (28%) reported difficulty using some aspect of the home, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report.
Given that the demand for homes with aging-accessible features will rise as baby boomers age and the size of the older population grows, now might be a good time to assess your home.
“The need for aging-accessible homes is one of both health and economics, as fall-related injuries impose costly tolls on older people,” the report stated. “Coupled with the growing size of the older population, it is necessary to consider how the functional design of homes may affect older people’s ability to live safely and comfortably.”
So, can you age in place? Sandra Timmermann, a nationally-recognized gerontologist and the founder of the MetLife Mature Market Institute, offered some guidelines:
Will the physical features of your home be a help or hindrance as your age?
Many people over 50 live in older homes which were designed for younger families and which don’t meet current Americans with Disabilities Act standards, says Timmerman. “Upstairs bedrooms, stairs at the entryway, and narrow hallways could be an issue later if you develop mobility issues,” she says.
What to do? Check zoning in your neighborhood and consider building a bedroom and full bath on the ground floor before the need arises. Also, do some simple fixes such as installing grab bars in bathrooms and adding walk-in showers, and updating for easy outdoor access.
According to the Census Bureau, the most common unmet need in households with older adults who reported serious difficulty walking is a lack of handrails or grab bars for support.
Is your home difficult to take care of?
Older homes require regular maintenance. “As we age, doing some of the things we used to do to keep the house in good shape gets more difficult,” says Timmerman. “For retirees on a fixed income, cost is a consideration, too.”
What to do? Consider whether the cost of maintaining your home – such as new roofs, lawn upkeep, tree trimming, and ongoing repairs – will impact your retirement budget.
“While unmet housing needs pose challenges for older adults, they are especially problematic because they are overrepresented among older households that are poor and economically disadvantaged,” the Census Bureau report stated. “This is a population with relatively few resources for home renovations or for relocating to a new home with better aging-accessible features.”
Is your community “age-friendly”?
In addition to assessing the physical characteristics of your house, Timmerman recommends checking whether the community where you live is suitable for growing old.
Questions to think about: If you can no longer drive, is alternate transportation available? Are you close to a good hospital and medical care? Will you feel safe in your home, especially if your spouse passes away and you are by yourself?
Of note, AARP maintains a list of all age-friendly states and communities as well as a tool to determine how age-friendly/livable your community is. There are now seven states, one territory and 466 communities nationwide deemed age-friendly by AARP. The Stanford Longevity Center, in cooperation with the Mature Market Institute, also developed indicators for livable communities.
According to Timmerman, there are also some innovative community-based programs that support older persons at home. Look into whether there is a “village,” a membership-based local organization designed to help people age in place, in your community. There are now 250 such communities in the United States. Also, check whether a local long-term care facility offers continuing care at home, a pre-purchased plan that guarantees home care and links to social services.
What will happen if you need long-term care?
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many retirees to place an even higher value on aging in place rather than in an institution, says Timmerman. “However, care at home can be very expensive and it is often difficult to find suitable home health aides,” she says.
The national average hourly cost for home care is about $23 per hour. As you do your retirement planning, Timmerman recommends factoring in the cost of care, how you can blend family care with paid care, and considering the purchase of long-term care insurance. Genworth, an insurance company, tracks yearly the cost of care by zip code.
Another option down the road might be to tap home equity through a reverse mortgage to cover home care expenses, says Timmerman.
Do you want to be near your adult children?
Though retirees value their independence, being near a family member can provide emotional and practical support if you should become frail or develop health conditions. “It also might make it easier for your children to have you close by,” says Timmerman. “If this is important, consider having a conversation with your adult children about suitable housing while you are healthy.”
Is it time to move to a more “age-friendly” home?
Rather than retrofit your current home, it may be smart to move to a new one with less maintenance, lower expenses, more access to amenities and health care, and increased opportunities for social interaction, she says.
Look into other options while you are healthy such as 55-plus retirement communities, continuing care retirement communities, or what are often called life-care communities where you move into independent housing first, but are guaranteed care along the aging continuum, says Timmerman.
Other resources: The National Institute on Aging has a section devoted to aging in place; see Aging in Place: Growing Older at Home.