Birthdays, Energy and More
GRAY MATTERS: Nursing Homes and Drugs

Aging in Place – Purchasing a Home

On my posts about finding a new home, a lot of TGB readers have commented about the practicalities and realities of aging that should or need to be considered when choosing a place to live as we get older. Some people solve these problems by moving into retirement communities where the issues were carefully considered during building and development.

Other people already have homes where, whatever their suitability for old age, they intend to remain until they die. (There are changes and fixes they can make to accommodate their old age, but we will create that list on a future day.)

And some of us, like me, for reasons such as downsizing or moving to be near adult chlidren or other family, find ourselves purchasing a new home and if we are already old enough, also like me, we face issues that never occurred to us when we were young. Like stairs.

Pretty much all of us want to live independently for as long as possible. That time can be cut unnecessarily short unless we think ahead.

So it might be good for us today, to all contribute to a list of practicalities in choosing a new home late in life.

There is an international movement encouraging home construction design for lifelong living – all one level, ramps, wide doorways for future wheelchair use, for example. But there are not many of these homes yet, so mostly, we need to figure it out for ourselves within existing housing stock.

An important first step, I think, is to admit that no matter how active, energetic and capable you are now, that is likely to change in the future. That is hard thing for many people to admit, particularly in a culture that believes in the pretense of youth until death. But unless you want to be sleeping in the dining room in your declining years or worse, need to sell your home before you're ready, it's a good thing, an important thing to face reality.

Here is my list of primary considerations in buying a home for aging in place:

  • No stairs to or inside the home
  • Which means no second floor
  • Small yard unless you like riding a power mower
  • Proximity to public transportation for when you may no longer be able to drive
  • Walking distance to stores and shops with the basics of life
  • No steep hills in the neighborhood
  • Low as possible property tax for fixed income security

Here are a few others that will differ depending on your personal circumstances:

  • If you have chronic health conditions that need frequent monitoring, proximity to your primary care physician or other necessary health care professionals
  • Perhaps walking distance to your grown children and grandchildren
  • Walking distance to a gym, public swimming pool or other exercise center
  • If it is important to you, a nearby church, synagogue or mosque
  • Consider a condominium to share large maintenance expenditures

In addition, new or newer heating, air conditioning and appliances help prevent large layouts of money soon after purchase. And if at all possible, people with low income (many elders live on not much more than Social Security) a cash purchase eliminates mortgage payments, dramatically reducing monthly expenses.

These were my personal conditions for buying my new home. I didn't meet all of them, but came close. For example, I have reduced my annual property tax bill by a third. On the other hand, my monthly condo fee goes up by a third, but there is professional management in place and a swimming pool so in the warm months I have ready access to daily exercise of one kind.

Soon, we will develop a similar list for retrofitting current homes for aging in place.

So what can you do to modify or add to this list?

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Marcia Mayo: Kittens in the Morning (under a bush)


Magnificent topic. Some additions to your grand list — mixed-age residents of the condo/neighborhood, public transportation to culture (public library, university, learning center), and close to nature (green space, at a minimum, mini vest-pocket parks). By the way, center city Tel Aviv fills all your requirements and mine (plus, the Mediterranean Sea!)... alas, except the purchase price;-)

And yet there are those who live in the country in regular homes all over the world as they age and they are quite capable until just months before they die.

That's a practical list. It's also pretty much an urban list. I could find most of those items in homes and condo units in the rural area where I live, except there is a taxi two days a week and because of zoning, no stores close by to the nicer areas. Property taxes are very high - but they pay for services we need, especially as we age.

I would add a walk in shower possibly without a lip or with a low lip to step over and if really practical a shower door wide enough for a wheelchair.

Many of the items you list are things I've been holding out for, however if I bought in the north country I would not have public transportation though if in a village i could walk to shops.Its one of my major hesitations about the north country.

There may be a difference between yourself (and myself who is buying her first home at age 65) and people who have already bought and invested in a place years ago when younger. To avoid moving, one can adapt ones house. Also one can hire high school kids to mow lawns etc. put in a shower stall when a tub becomes difficult.

There is an advantage in a way to be selecting a new home at age 65 as, speaking for me, i am trying my best to not be lured by homes that would prove difficult in years ahead.

I love it that you address these issues so directly. I have so many friends my age who refuse to talk about aging.

Floor covering that is safe for stockinged feet is important too. Hard wood floors or linoleum can be slippery and dangerous. Carpeting that is loose or rippled is also hazardous. Certainly remove any small throw rugs. I'm still looking for the perfect solution myself.

A note of caution in these lists:

This one is for purchasing a home. Some of you are including amenities such as special flooring, walk-in showers, transportation to specific locations, etc.

These are not unimportant. But if you so restrict your choices in the PURCHASE of a home, you will fail to meet your goals and could wind up with a terrific old-person's shower on the second floor - not very useful when/if the stairs become difficult.

Today's list is meant to hold broad-stroke requirements that will serve you well for the rest of your life.

In Part Two, we will create a list of improvements and retrofitting that can make your late-life home safer and easier to use for the rest of your life.

One thing I omitted that has given me pain for the past four years: if you live in snow country, choose a home with a garage or covered, off-street parking. Digging out your car after multiple 12-inch-plus snow storms gets harder and harder with the years.

EasyDiverChris's comment about carpeting reminds me of the last time I visited a family friend in her retirement facility. She pointed to the just replaced carpet in the public areas and remarked that the management wasn't thinking when they picked out such a busy pattern. The carpet was causing a lot of grief for the residents with balance problems.

Thumbs up on the walk-in shower (with seat, even better). And, to be really picky, one bathroom with a deep tub that has side handles and a wide lip; so many times, a hot bath soothes my aches and pains like nothing else.

Lots of lower level storage space in kitchen. And the kitchen should be of the shape and size that a wheelchair can maneuver within it.

All of the above suggestions are fine and I'll toss in something a bit off topic.........clean out, throw out "stuff" while you can. I recall having to do my dear parents home when they died. Years and years of stuff. I kept the few things I wanted and found resolutions for the rest. It is a great favor to "the kids" to get a handle on this before one if unable to do it.

Grab bars in the bathrooms become important as you age. However, they can always be added, so that is not an item to consider when buying a house.

Outside walkways should be smooth and easy to maneuver. If you still drive a covered carport or garage is good in any climate. Getting in a car that has been sitting in the sun can be like stepping into an oven.

I bought my "new" home six years ago (I was 52 and, as now, single) with the intention of aging in place. I'd owned a small, cottage-like home built into a steep ravine for 29 years before that.

I was flexible about a two-story home, as long as it had a bedroom and bath on the first floor. I wanted a no-maintenance exterior. Most of all, I no longer wanted what I'd once loved: an old house, full of those charming architectural features that translate into funky maintenance and repairs that baffle workers. They (the homes!) are too much work, and too much money. (This criterion, by the way, kept me out of the city of Buffalo; almost all the city housing stock is old.)

I also wanted sewers (I'd had a septic tank), and town water (I lived in an area where a lot of people had wells).

Like Ronni, I found most of what I wanted: I got a four-room ranch (about 1200 sq. ft.): two bedrooms, a long, nice eat-in kitchen, and a big (15' X 25') glorious room that really is a "living room" - the dining area is at one end, my "office" is at the other, and the "conversation nook" is in the middle, between the fireplace and the huge picture window that opens onto the acre and a half that I own.

Big as the lot is, I decided to let the back half go to field to cut down on mowing. I found out I *love* a riding mower, and, if I someday can't do it, I can just let much of it go and hire a lawn service to do the rest. (Forget high school kids doing this kind of work; I've never found any.)

I was influenced by the fact that my parents built themselves a brick ranch in their 50s, after owning an old double for years before that. They were very conscious of building a low-maintenance home they could age in.

I never thought I'd love gray vinyl siding, but I do! And I do have an attached garage, and I hire a plow guy so I can get to work. If you're going to own a home, it needs to conform to codes (many old homes don't) and be quirk-free so that electricians, plumbers, and handymen know how to do the necessary work.

It's in East Aurora, one of our villages near Buffalo, NY. I'm within a mile of the library and grocery store. The area has sidewalks, which the village plows in winter, and--no small benefit--my sister and her family are within a 3-minute walk.

Good thoughts here. The variety shows how hard it is to have it all. A year ago, we (ages 69 and 73) went in the opposite direction. We left a condo after 27 years and bought a two-level house in a rural area. And guess what? It's way better for us. Climbing stairs is good exercise, but when we no longer can we will be able to "retreat" to one level. Yard work also is good exercise. We think the trick is to find a place where one can do those things while physically able, and then hire the work done as it becomes too difficult. Individuals will do better hiring workers themselves than HOA associations will.

Some people really think ahead. I have friends who built their dream home in their 30's. They wanted to live there for life and the first floor is completely accessible--complete with roll-in shower--so they can comfortably live just on the one floor (out of the 3 they use now) should that become necessary.

We thought about this when refurbishing/extending the small adobe cottage we bought in Turkey 7 years ago. We have a bedroom and full bathroom on ground floor and two bedrooms sharing a shower room upstairs in new extension. We are currently in our early sixties and still sleep upstairs but in the future, whther for physical or financial reasons, we could live downstairs and turn upstairs into a self-contained one-bed apartment that would bring in extra cash.

For a single person living alone a condo is a better choice than living in a house. There are more possibilities for meeting your neighbors and having a pool in your development is a big plus too, not only for the exercise but an opportunity to meet your neighbors.

If you have to purchase a refigerator in your new place, try to get one with the freezer on the bottom, you go for the milk more than the frozen goodies.
That way there is less bending.

Thank you for posting all these wonderful ideas. As I upgrade my home, I will be considering these things. So far, I'm looking like I accidentally made some forward thinking choices, except for the hill. I live atop a very steep hill. I wonder does what feeds the soul count for something? I can see Mt. Baker and the Canadian Rockies from my living room on a sunny day like today. I have lived in dark, cozy, cubbyhole-like places and I didn't do as well. I think a certain aesthetic needs to be considered in the equation too.

Cile - aesthetics and personal satisfaction may very well trump all the practicalities, I think. I was lucky to be in no hurry at all...I poked around for 3 years, visiting open houses, which helped me form a list of what I wanted for my soul as well as for the future. And certainly $$$ have to figure in, not just what you pay but what you can expect back. I was *very* lucky that I finally found a place that made me happy on all kinds of levels. I still pinch myself to see if I'm really lucky or just dreaming!

These are all great suggestions, so much so that I can find little to add. But I do have one small thing: Not all "over-55" rental places are up-to-date in what is safe, realistic, and useful to seniors, so shop carefully.

I live in a retirement community surrounding a golf course, with a plethora of second floor units (though I live on the first). This apartment complex was clearly built for the 70s-80s model of retirement. You know, the fun kind with the endless golf, swimming, and hiking, not the sad kind with the flagging energy and disability ;)

The result is that management is having a VERY tough time renting those second floor units because people our age are savvier and more realistic than our age cohort was 10 or 20 years ago. My neighbor and good friend from the upstairs unit moved out six months ago, and her old apartment is still empty. If you can still sprint those stairs, I'm guessing a REALLY good deal awaits in the rental office.

In general, if you're not buying a new place or remodeling a long-time home but renting, much rental "independent living" harkens back to the silly "Centrum Silver!" model of ceaseless bubbly post-work energy. There are no support services beyond the local public transit, which luckily has a stop across the street, and the maintenance guys, who are kind and diligent but have a workload of 300-plus units. The shower enclosures all have those miserable hard-to-clean, dangerous glass doors and are tiny, so they serve as a kind of agility test in themselves.

There seems to be a cautious move on management's part towards broadening an over-18 demographic, rather than limiting the tenants to over-55s because this kind of pseudo- "independent retirement living" is getting to be a very hard sell, and that's good. It means we're getting smarter as a group.

We've hedged our bets. My husband and I are fit and healthy, and we live in Hawaii, a place where the infirmities of old age are not a constant drumbeat in the minds of the elderly. As long as we can live this way, we will. With stairs. And lots of hikes, with walking sticks for balance. Our neighborhood is full of happy oldsters like us, aging in place.
If and when we can't make it on our own any more, we have bought a small condo apartment in Seattle, in the Ballard neighborhood, in a new building. Our kids and grandkids live in Seattle, and we visit often, spending two or three months a year there. Ballard is a wonderful area close to the water, and we have a view of the canal out our big windows and can see boats and birds going by as well as the customers going in and out of the coffee shop across the street and the people walking their dogs. Part of our view is obstructed by a brand-new, practically empty retirement home. Why no one is in it I can't say.
I'm very safety minded and plan ahead, but my whole outlook is that I want to continue living my life into old age in a way consistent with how I've always lived, and not become a mere consumer of the elderly "lifestyle," not to be put out to pasture, in other words. So many of my friends have done that, and they get damned dull in a big hurry after retirement.
And Millie points out how the ads in the paper where she lives are all directed at the infirmities of old age. That's a bummer, I think.

I would suggest adding grab bars to the shower- they have come a long way from the institutional-looking ones you sometimes see.

If you want don't want grab bars now- it is a good idea for new home construction to have wood blocking behind the bathroom walls for future installation of grab bars.

You folks are teaching me so much about how to think about growing old. My folks (dead more than a decade) didn't do so well at that; they thought you stayed where you were, held on as long as you could, then dropped. My mother made 90 in a house with NO bathroom on the first floor where she spent most of her days (in old Buffalo, Mary Jamison.) She was one very determined lady.

We live now in a place that comes close to meeting many criteria -- but presents other problems. It's one thing to live in a tough urban neighborhood into one's 60s -- I don't know if I want to deal with very old age here -- nor is it clear I'll have a choice. And I share Cile's soul yearning for something more like country. I need that more and more as I age.

Urban or Suburban, having a grocery store and a drug store which deliver makes all the difference. Finding a climate without ice on which to slip or snow which must be shoveled was tops on our list when we moved "for the last time."

Feeding the soul was our second requirement. Sunshine and good medical care and easy parking were there, too.

Finding the balance between what you want, what you need, what you can afford... that's the tricky part.

We are all so different for how we will age and what we will need. My mother, who died at 85 was still walking and doing stairs when she died; but if a person has knees that give out, those things will become problems. We have a vacation rental house in Tucson and the last renter said we might help other renters by putting a bar in the walk-in shower. I had never thought of that as an issue for any elders who might rent the house but we will definitely add it. I have a lot of concern about my front deck now as it's slick in winter and I am thinking of redoing it as being the main entry to the house it has risks for sliding and falling. I walk very cautiously across it and never did when I was younger.

Hi Ronnie,
Puyallup, Wa is my home. We will practically be neighbors.
Will be 68 on my next birthday. When I got laid off over a year ago from my out of the house job I joined an exercise group at the local senior center. It drove me crazy with all the things we weren't SUPPOSE to do. Quit that and joined a yoga class that happens 3 times a week. At first I'd have to take a nap afterwards but now I have more energy than I've had for years. Yoga helps everything. Strength, joints, balance you name it. Back in the 70's I'd practised with Lilias Folan and have always known that yoga would keep me strong till the end of my life. Lilias is still going strong and has a web site, books CD's etc.
23 years ago bought a house that would last me to the end. It has stairs but also bedrooms downstairs. My painting studio is upstairs and going up & down many times a day is part my fitness program. The yard qualifies too. We planted bamboo when the neighbor added a deck that overlooked our fenced back yard. Digging out the overflow is also part of my fitness program as is the dog that needs walking every day.
We can never be younger but we can always be healthier & stronger. A strong flexible body is mirrored by a strong flexible mind.

Another solution to the yard besides a power mower is a shared greenspace that's maintained by the homeowner's association - a friend of mine lived in townhouses for a while that did that.

These are great suggestions, and I'm eagerly anticipating Part 2. My husband and I own a 2BR 2BA townhouse in a city just south of Seattle where we hope to remain until our final move. At 80 and 73, respectively, we've tried to be at least somewhat realistic by recognizing that we may be forced by future events to move to more age friendly accommodations, but we hope not. We've checked out several; they're nice enough but somewhat depressing and wildly expensive.

We love our home, but it does present some challenges for older people. The complex is at the end of a fairly steep driveway. We were nearly snowbound for three weeks during Winter 2008 and spent nine days without power, except for a portable generator. Although we managed as well as many younger homeowners, I wonder if we still could 10 years from now. There are six stairs between the garage and our front door walkway, and of course there are interior stairs. One full bath is very tiny, but the other is somewhat larger with a step in shower. Grocery and drugstores are within one mile as is public transportation, but there's that hilly driveway to navigate.

Ronni, it sounds like your new home is just about perfect for aging in place. I very much agree with Ashleigh. The tricky part is indeed balancing our needs and wants with what we can afford

Aging in place needs and wants for each individual are highly unique. Some can be important to all of us as you note.

I would suggest giving serious consideration to interior living quarters being infused with considerable daytime exterior natural light when choosing any home/condo/apt. purchased/rental.

I think each individual should make an optimal ranked list of features NEEDED vs wanted. Note those that can be relinquished. For some we may simply have to take what we can get for a variety of reasons. Then issues of what to do with what we have is another topic.

Personally, I like the idea of having extra bedrooms, if possible, so if I ever need additional income, I might be able to rent a room. Also, if my needs ever require live-in assistance I'll have a room for my caregiver.

I haven't had any success for years finding young people willing to do yardwork or other tasks for spending money, just as there are no paperBOYS/GIRLS. The only ones were elementary age children who required my extensive training, then almost constant supervision, especially if the job took longer than 15 to 30 mins. such as using a prod to remove some small thistle-free flowering weeds. College age students (if you live in a college town) might be a possibiiity.

Your current post is an excellent subject tying in with an all day conference I attended this past weekend on home modification for those with special needs including ideas quite applicable for an aging population to consider. Many of the suggestions here were made there by the rehab professional international consultant presenter.

I recall one example of an older couple who discovered remodeling their lake cottage would be more expensive than re-building. They built two story with much safer stairs since they planned adult children and grandchildren would use it. They also believed two story would make the house more attractive for any future resale to a broader age range.

The downstairs, especially, was constructed to be functional for those with and without limitations including the wife who used a wheelchair following a stroke. The wide "lip" rather than even slight step elevation changes for shower, doorways, other areas is a must as can be the elimination of "busy" patterns, especially floor.

It took a long time to scroll to the bottom here....LOL

Great list, Ronni. I'd like to budge mr. kenju out of this 5 bedroom house to something smaller, on one level, but he won't go. I worry about the day when he might become wheel-chair bound; it will cost a lot to make this house accessible for him.

I was thinking about this whole post yesterday. For me, anyway, it's not just "what it's really like to get older" -- it's more, "what it's really like to get older if you're alone, have no children you can trust to help you, and don't have a lot of money." The choices we make that will impact the post-50 years are going to vary wildly depending on a zillion factors beyond our numerical age.

It's comforting to know that many others are mulling over the same obstacles as I am...doing it alone as Mary Jamison says.....

Many families are blended these days, which introduces yet another dimension, that of adult stepchildren who may or may not be able or willing to remain involved with a stepparent who survives the biological parent. Speaking honestly, I hope that I depart this world at about the same time as my husband and best friend, a healthy and active 80 year old. But at 73 I recognize that life and Nature don't always bend themselves to our will.

I'm childless by choice, a choice I've never regretted, despite being warned repeatedly that I'd be really sorry when I got old! My husband has several adult children, and we have a good relationship, but I don't expect them to assume any caregiving or financial responsibility for me if I outlive their father.

So I'd then be in a position similar to that of Judy W., Mary Jamison and, I suspect, a growing cohort of older women, some of whom may have biological children who are unavailable for a wide variety of reasons. I so agree that there are a zillion factors. . .

Here's one more vote with Darlene, Kay, Cile and Cynthia! Retaining my identity and dignity as long as I have enough marbles left to know my name are huge for me. There is so much to be done in the entire area of aging and how to live as an older person. It's hard to know where to begin, but I think the TGB blog encourages discussion of the subject and exploration of ideas. Maybe that's a start. Thank you for TGB, Ronni.

Speaking strictly for myself, I want to have some control over when, where and how my life ends when the time comes. Our healthcare system is geared to providing high tech, all the bells and whistles, treat at any cost care. That's the usual approach even for very old people who are clearly nearing the end, whose quality of life is long gone, and who would never have chosen repeated trips to the ER or ICU. As I wrote to my legislators a few months ago, here's one Granny who has no problem with end of life counseling.

Independence, home care, assisted living, nursing homes. Yet more challenges for those of us who are living the experience of aging.

It’s also important to consider a concept known as “environmental press,” which is conditions in the environment that require a response from the individual.

If you make the environment too passive, the person atrophies from lack of stimulation; and if you have an environment with too much demand they suffer as well.

The goal is to find the right balance for each situation for a healthy person-environment fit.

This is a topic near and dear to us at
Best, Patrick Roden RN PhD

The comments to this entry are closed.