The COVID crisis has shined a new light on older adults and our housing. The pandemic may actually offer some of us opportunities to reflect on our homes and what we’d like our living situations to be like in the years to come.
First, we’re spending an awful lot of time trapped indoors these days. Perhaps we’ve noticed that some of our daily activities are getting harder. Is getting on and off the toilet more difficult these days? Maybe that slippery shower floor seems a little more dangerous than it used to. Or, are you now approaching the stairs with more anxiety? Our quarantine may be providing the time to take a closer look at how we accomplish everyday tasks.
Second, along with our forced at-home time, we may have found ourselves without the amount of assistance that we’ve grown used to. Whether it is paid help or family members, they may be less available due to COVID issues in their own businesses or lives. Suddenly many of the daily activities that we’ve had help with, we may have had to carry out on our own, or less frequently, or less safely. From getting out of bed to getting dressed, using the toilet, bathing, cooking, and more, we might be realizing that the assistance we’ve become used to is really masking a home environment that could be helping us out more than it does. These new challenges might include high kitchen storage that we can’t reach, or the high tub rim that we realize is a real safety hazard.
Finally, we have the emerging catastrophes with our long term care (LTC) facilities such as nursing homes. One of the defining characteristics of aging in the US has been our collective desire to avoid nursing homes. Expressed another way, remaining in the home we are in right now (for as long as possible or until we die) is what most of us say we want to do. We also know that very few of us to plan well for that goal. Nor do many of us have a clear-eyed view of the broader picture of our housing options as we age: can we remodel our home at a reasonable cost with an acceptable outcome, or should we think about finding another home that might be easier to fix up? We tend to wait until a health catastrophe has happened (such as a fall resulting in a broken hip) before facing the issue of our person/home mismatch. By then, it is usually too late to conduct thoughtful and comprehensive housing interventions.
Now we have the news that during this pandemic, LTC’s have been hit hard with more than ⅓ of all reported US Covid-19 deaths occurring in nursing homes. In some places, the portion of nursing home COVID deaths exceeds ⅔, as it does in western North Carolina. Older adults seem to be paying attention. Covid-19 looks like it has helped to reinforce people's desire to avoid moving to a nursing home. We have been told directly by several older adults (and heard of many others) that the news of the death rates in nursing facilities has redoubled their commitment to stay at home, to age in place, and never, ever move to a nursing home. This is an understandable reaction and we’re guessing, one that is widespread. Given this renewed commitment to aging in place, perhaps the Covid-19 crisis can have the unintended benefit of opening a small window of opportunity to convince older households to plan ahead, consider their options, and begin to act affirmatively on their desire to remain in their homes safely and independently as long as possible. We know that living in a better designed home (that allows for safe and independent living) can delay moves to care settings of all types. Don’t forget the money savings as well: LTC costs can run over $100K/yr.
While we are uncomfortable using fear tactics as a motivational tool, those of us in the field have been confounded for many decades by older adults’ reluctance to act in their own best interests regarding their retirement planning. Perhaps now is the time for a quiet conversation with current or prospective clients, our parents, and grandparents about how you can help with this challenging process. Older adults are best served by advisors who can help them through a process of weighing options, including if remodeling their current home is the best idea, or if relocating is a better idea.
For easy ways to improve the safety of your home we have compiled a quick list here and here. While this conversation is hard to have with your parents, grandparents, or each other it is a worthy one, all of our health and well being depend on it.
Ideas for safety and functional improvements, large and small can be found here: