explainer of what is aging in place
Credit: Photo: Shutterstock; Design: Apartment Therapy

What Is “Aging in Place” — And Why Does It Matter?

published Sep 20, 2022
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Most of my memories of my grandmother center around being at her house. As her only grandchild who lived close by, I shared many great times with her there. And reflecting on her time in that house, I recall a slow transition. When I was a child, she used to sleep on the second story during our Saturday night sleepovers, but by the time I was a teen, a back room was converted into an en-suite bedroom that opened to a deck with a wheelchair-accessible ramp. In her later years, that proximity to the outside proved prudent as it gave her health aides easy access to her room.

Aging in place is a term used for people living in their homes as they age safely and independently, regardless of their income or ability level. “Aging in place provides the individual with a greater quality of life,” explains Esther C. Kane, a certified senior home safety specialist. “One cannot get the same sense of comfort and security that comes from a familiar setting if they have to move to another location.”

My grandmother lived to be 100 and was the perfect example of successful aging in place. Although my husband and I are only in our early 50s, we’ve also started thinking about what our future holds. We try to remain active by walking and biking, and we recently moved to a one-level home where we could effectively live out the rest of our days if we so choose. We haven’t quite gotten that settled with our thinking yet, but planning helps. Here’s expert advice on why aging in place is essential and how to do it successfully. 

The Importance of Aging in Place

One of the main reasons people want to stay in their homes is so that they can be surrounded by familiarity. That peace of mind was essential for my grandmother, who had spent over 50 years in her home. “Change is difficult for anyone, and it can be especially difficult the older we get,” says Andrea Hance Collins, who works with a family-owned medical equipment company. “Staying home also allows for the feeling of more independence which is important for our mental health.”

Being at home also provides a certain amount of security, especially for those who may already be suffering from psychological issues. “An older adult suffering from severe anxiety and/or depression will have a more heightened level of fear when it comes to changing their environment,” Kane says. In addition, living in a calming place that brings back memories can alleviate uneasiness as age progresses.

A certain level of dignity is also associated with remaining at home instead of being ushered into a scaled-back, more sterile environment. Lisa M. Cini is a senior living and aging-in-place design expert and feels that maintaining a feeling of belonging is vital as folks age. “It matters to the individual to retain a sense of their independence, freedom, and dignity and to continue to live their life as they have been accustomed to,” she says.

Collins also stresses that it’s crucial to communicate your desire to stay at home to your family. “The most important thing to do is to do your research and talk openly with loved ones about your wishes to age in place and how to successfully do so with their support,” she advises. 

Talking through scenarios can help your family better understand your needs as you comprehend theirs. Conversations may also take shape over time as health needs arise and the demand for care increases.

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Apartment Therapy

Projects to Start Now to Help You Age in Place

Take care of yourself. 

There’s no better time than the present to make a plan and start doing home projects that can help make life easier as you get older. However, one piece of advice has nothing to do with your house: stay active. Taking care of yourself, no matter your age or life stage, will go a long way towards enabling you to live at home. “Falls, as we age, are more common due to poor eyesight and mobility, so exercise is a key factor to maintaining healthy aging in place,” says Cini. Even something as simple as going to the doctor for annual checkups can alert you to any health issues.

Have a minimalist mindset.

Cini also recommends removing clutter to avoid falls, which is also a significant point for Kristen Omventure, a former health professional who now concentrates on sustainable living. 

“Simplifying allows for a streamlined, organized space with less distraction while minimizing potential hazards and maximizing free time to focus on what truly matters,” she advises. In addition, downsizing your belongings can help clear pathways while also helping to alleviate the mental clutter that often accompanies having too many material things.

Getting rid of belongings can be daunting, but consider why you need that specific item — both now or in the future — so that you can quickly decide what to keep and toss. When my grandmother died, my mom and I had a house full of decades of items to deal with, and although it was fun to go through and reminisce, it was somewhat of a burden to decide what to save. That experience encouraged me to wade through my collection of items so that my children don’t have to deal with a plethora of stuff someday. (My minimalist daughter has already expressed that concern.)

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Apartment Therapy

Rework your current space for future needs.

You can also make minor adjustments to your living space, such as removing trip hazards, installing safety bars and handrails, and adding night lights to lessen the potential for a fall. Many experts indicated that the bathroom is one of the most critical rooms to make these changes. “Installing grab bars and taller toilet seats in the bathroom are really vital for added safety,” suggests Kane. You may also encounter major tasks, such as turning a first-floor powder room into a full bathroom or adding a stair lift to access a second-story safely.

Utilize technology.

One advantage today’s folks have over previous generations is the use of electronics. Although wearable medical alert systems have been around since the 1970s, technology has grown by leaps and bounds. Smart home upgrades can make you feel safe and more comfortable in your home as you age. 

Consider installing an alarm system, doorbell cameras, and auto-lock door handles. “Smart technology is super beneficial to seniors and their loved ones who want to ensure they are most comfortable and able to age in place,” recommends Rebecca Awram, a mortgage advisor at Seniors Lending Centre. These small changes add an extra sense of security, especially if someone is living alone.

Credit: insta_photos/Shutterstock.com

Successfully Preparing to Stay in Place at Any Age

There are things you can do to prepare for your future. Whether you are just starting to consider aging in place or are already doing so, here are a few things you can work on right now.

If you’re in your 40s…

  • Start considering your wishes and whether you want to age in place or move to a new home that will better fit your needs.
  • Talk to professionals about long-term care insurance, wills, and financial planning.
  • Have conversations with your family about what you foresee for your future.
  • Consider what updates you might need to make to your current home if you plan to age in place.

If you’re in your 50s…

  • Add smart devices throughout your home for your lights, stove, and refrigerator.
  • Install automatic door locks and a doorbell camera to the exterior of your home.
  • Rethink your bathroom space to see what you need to change in the future, and budget for those expenses.
  • Start developing hobbies, including one focusing on movement (walking, swimming) and one building the mind (painting, writing).

If you’re in your 60s…

  • Begin decluttering your spaces and paring down your belongings.
  • If you aren’t already living in a suitable location, look for a place where you can successfully age in place.
  • Start renovating and modifying, such as remodeling bathrooms, adding efficient lighting, installing non-slip flooring, and placing grab bars in showers, halls, and stairways.
  • Ensure that your furniture, such as your favorite chair, is easy to enter and exit.

If you’re in your 70s…

  • Create a safe outdoor space where you can walk to your car without fear of slipping on ice or being drenched by rain.
  • Complete any necessary renovations and modifications, such as adding a lift chair and higher toilet seats.
  • Have a secure box outside where you can accept deliveries so that you don’t have to try and rush to answer the door. Also, create a safe walking path to your mailbox.
  • Become more involved in your community and hobbies to keep your mind and body active.

No matter your age, planning will put you ahead of the game. “Don’t wait until an illness or injury forces your hand,” adds Collins. Staving off problems before they start is the best way to guarantee that you can actually live out your desire to age in place. So, although the conversation is just beginning for my husband and me, we’re having those talks with our kids to ensure a gratifying future for everyone.