The first time I visited Sicily and saw my 78-year-old great aunt zoom up stairs like these with ease–despite the altitude of about half a mile–I was amazed. No ranch homes or elevators in the tiny town of Gratteri. Everyone aged in place.
That’s the term being used now for the time period when older people live in their homes and not in THE HOME.
But we don’t live in Sicily. An array of home choices lies before us and it’s up to us to choose wisely given our age and situation.
When we started looking for our home five years ago we fell in love with a huge, two-story house. It was more formal than our usual taste, had more bedrooms than we really required and featured a sweeping staircase toward the front door. I liked the open floor plan. There were a few reasons why we didn’t buy it, but one of them was that we planned to age there and wanted it to be as flexible as possible for any eventuality. After all, one of us could get sick–did we really want to add the complexity of navigating stairs to our recovery or to a changed life?
But I know plenty of people my age and older who are denial about what could happen as they age. And then, have to face what HAS happened, leaving them to try to modify their home and lifestyle to a more difficult scenario.
Most people simply do not want to move out of the homes they’ve known and loved, even when faced with a debilitating diagnosis. Even if that home wasn’t the family home. And yet, if that place is difficult navigate on foot or wheelchair, moving to a more age-appropriate home is probably the best option. As we age, most serious diseases do not get completely better. It’s likely that mobility (and life) will change significantly over time.
M and I are realists. We have both been through serious illnesses of family and close friends. We simply did not want to cope with the expense and hassle of modifying a home to suit future debilitation. Instead, we bought a home flexible enough to handle changes as we aged, even though at the time, I was only in my late 50s.
An open floor plan, wide doorways and no stairs mean we can stay there longer and without exhausting ourselves just to get from bedroom to kitchen.
I have a friend with a debilitating chronic illness who simply did not want to leave her home, despite it being two stories with narrow hallways. She installed an electric chair and for the first couple years it was fine. But as she was hit with a weakening complication and confined to a wheelchair, it became exhausting for her to move from bed to wheelchair to stair chair and back to wheelchair. And it’s exhausting for her caregivers.
A few years earlier, she did have another option, which was to move to a one-story home near her kids. But she didn’t want to go through the hassle of moving, even though her friends and family would have actually done it. And she went through various renovation hassles without a backward glance. The truth is, she didn’t want to leave her home.
I’m not so sure she’d make the same decision today. But we don’t get to go back, do we?
I watch all my aging friends carefully these days, and try to learn from their experiences.
Now, it’s very true that one of my best friends is in her mid 80s and only now beginning to see the impact of age. She lives up a very long flight of exterior stairs in an unusually large and affordable apartment for her city. It’s true that she would be unable to find a similarly sweet deal anywhere else in her city. Absolutely not. But at the same time, she’s seen that in a weakened condition, it can be an ordeal to simply get downstairs to the car to go to the doctor. It’s all trade-offs and she makes hers from the State of Denial some of the time. (I know you’re reading this, sugar, and yes, we’ll talk!)
I’m not big on fooling myself, not usually. (Although I’ve been known to.) But when it comes to lifestyle, I am a realist. The ability to age in place is a gift that we should use wisely. It’s not offered to everyone.