Rachel Adelson, M.A., is a science writer specializing in aging and health, and the author of Staying Power: Age-Proof Your Home for Comfort, Safety and Style (Sage Tree Publishing). She has covered everything from brain health and neurological disorders to human-computer interaction. In the midst of a downsizing move herself, Rachel recently made time to answer a few questions about “aging in place” for us.
What got you interested in the topic of aging in place, and what made you want to write a book about it?
You don’t have to be old or contemplating your own aging or mortality to be interested in this subject. I went back to grad school to study aging for two reasons: First, it’s a fascinating subject, embracing everything about the human experience. You can find your own piece of it and make a difference. Second, the rapid expansion of the older demographic is going to influence our world in profound ways. I thought it would be exciting to be a part of that. I settled on “aging at home” because I had enjoyed learning about human factors and universal design earlier in my career and saw the obvious connection—and the obvious need. And it’s fun to figure out “toys” that can help people; there’s a real problem-solving aspect that makes use of the medical knowledge.
What is the most interesting, or most helpful thing you learned in the process of writing your book? What do people need to know about aging in place?
People tend to think big about adaptations for aging – elevators, ramps – and get put off by the cost, complexity and appearance, so they stop right there. But with help from the experts, I discovered a wealth of simple, small, common-sense and affordable changes (some of which fit right in with your regular décor) that can aid accessibility and accommodate a wide variety of age-related changes. Most people can start small and adapt over time; should they need a ramp or a stair climber, they’ll know it. But for many people, simpler things—like contrasting friction tape and good lighting–can prevent a disabling fall and the need for more drastic change.
What are some of the medical or physical conditions that people THINK require moving out of the home, but don’t necessarily?
This is a good question, because the best ideas should directly respond to a resident’s changing needs. If you are strong and agile, why would you need an elevator? However, if your vision is weak, you should address that issue instead. I structured my book around the most common changes of aging–physical, sensory, mental–so that readers can focus on their own unique needs. All the way through the life span, we’re not one-size-fits-all.
That said, stairs are such a big issue. When people develop arthritis in the knees or the hips, they start to dread going up and down. But even there, a main-floor dining room might become a bedroom, a pantry can become a washroom, and so on. Or you can put in a stair climber.
With vision changes, often people would rather be in a familiar setting where they know the layout and placement.
And nearly any home can be modified to reduce the energy demands on a person, though as someone’s world shrinks, it gets harder to maintain a big space. Reduced maintenance and increased clutter can lead to safety problems (a cluttered space is harder to clean and clear).
If everything else is in place, you can compare costs and convenience, who might be helping you and in what capacity, and so on. Some people would rather move from their homes; some would rather stay. And sometimes it’s not about the house per se, it’s more about transportation to and from the house—for residents and for helpers. Given that the bulk of older people live in the suburbs, transportation is a major issue, too.
Would you say that aging in place is a growing trend? What’s new on the horizon?
Aging in place is a new term for what people have done since there were human settlements. I believe the term sprang up only as a reaction to the mid-20th-century promotion of special, age-segregated housing for older people. With people living longer and living better in the first phase of old age, there is less of a pressing need to move away. Also, living for 20 to 30 years in a “retirement community” doesn’t have the same appeal as it did when you expected, shall we say, a shorter stay.
Past that, it’s hard to say what’s on the horizon. We’ve never had this many people live this long before, and a lot will depend on how the combination of finances, housing, health care, technology, transportation and social services plays out. All we know is that the models of the past won’t work…but then, they rarely do.
What is the most challenging thing about getting a house ready for aging in place? The most rewarding?
The most challenging thing is that we’re all moving targets. We may be fine one day and get a funky diagnosis or get injured the next. Setting up the home isn’t a one-time deal; it’s an ongoing project of adaptation over time. That’s a mindset, an ongoing education.
That said, most of us have a nesting instinct. Adapting our homes to meet our needs is just the continuation of that feathering, and “setting up shop” to keep ourselves safe, healthy, and happy can be very rewarding. People hate the idea of losing their independence; my book was written to help them overcome that often-equal hatred of grab bars, so that they can remain independent.
Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.