Housing and Aging
The steps in the houses they’re building today
Are so high that they take… your breath all away.
And the streets are much steeper than ten years ago.
That should explain why my walking is slow.
Â For some time now Iâ€™ve been having dreams about a house Iâ€™ve never seen in real life. It is a gorgeous home, and I love wandering the rooms.Â The place is becoming so familiar to me that my dream-self knows where to go if I choose to sleep, or relax, or greet guests.Â While I find my mythical dream house an odd manifestation, I also dream of my actual grandmotherâ€™s house regularly. (That’s her house above.)
I vividly see her sitting in her wooden chair reading the bible, or curled on the sofa watching favorite television shows, or in the kitchen stirring up something that would taste and smell wonderful.Â I can still feel the soft sheets of her bed, bleached and scented by the summer sun, as I snuggled next to her for a childhood nap.Â When the decision was made by my uncle to put Grandma in a nursing home her house wept almost as much as I did.Â If I had reason to go into her house after she had left, the cold void was tangible and caused me to shiver.Â Grandmaâ€™s soul was missing as dust gathered on her photos.
Grandma is a wonderful example of how life once was.Â She was only 57 when Grandpa died of a brain tumor.Â She had taken care of him at home, and he died at peace in his own bed.Â Too young for Social Security benefits, Grandma tried to find steady outside work but was told she was too old and too unskilled.
My mother started paying her taxes, and money meant to be an inheritance from my grandfather to his daughters was given to Grandma to make ends meet.Â Between my mother and my uncle, Grandma was able to live at home and remain in her community until she was in her late 90â€™s.
At that time a series of small strokes left her at risk, and my uncle felt she needed to be in a nursing home.Â My mother was adamantly against the decision, yet she never offered to step in and help care for Grandma at home.
Going to the nursing home all but killed Grandmaâ€™s spirit.Â Even after her strokes Grandma was on hardly any medications.Â She had a little bit of asthma, a little bit of arthritis, and took blood thinners for high blood pressure.Â I believe if the resources existed she would have been an excellent candidate for part-time care assistance in her own home. What a difference that would have made in her quality of life and happiness.
Living seventy miles away Iâ€™d visit her in the nursing home as often as I could, but it was never enough to make either one of us feel good.Â Her mind remained sharp until the day she died just shy of her 102 birthday, and she always lit up with a big smile when I walked in the door of her tiny room.
I was a bit afraid the stagnation of the nursing home would cause memory lapses, and that I would turn into a stranger, but she always, always knew me. Â Suspecting her only physical touch was by nurses putting her in and out of her clothes, or perhaps bathing, Iâ€™d make a point of holding her hand as we spoke, of rubbing her shoulders, and of course sharing lots of hugs. Â Giving her a kiss on the cheek as I left always felt like the price of abandonment. Â My heart ached as I drove away knowing I was leaving her in an environment of loneliness.
With the exception of my sister-in-lawâ€™s mother, who asked to be put in a nursing home so she wouldnâ€™t be a burden to the family as she succumbed to cancer, I know of no older individuals who want to leave their homes as their health fails. Â The continuity of being surrounded by people and objects enjoyed over a lifetime has become a major issue in eldercare. Â What most older people want is known as â€œaging in place.â€
My ex-mother-in-law, Marian, lost her husband a few years ago. Â She still lives in the same home where she raised her family, but needs more and more help to maintain it. Â Her children live an average of 80 miles away and attempt to take turns with chores and errands, but find scheduling time to do so difficult with busy lives. Not wanting to upset Marian, they talk among themselves as to whether it might be time to suggest selling her home and finding a senior apartment.
It is a difficult topic, yet her physical needs are changing, and they worry that they live too far away to be of immediate help should she fall or hurt herself.Â This story, while unique to my exâ€™s family, is played out in similar fashion, every day, all across America. Common aging concerns are safety, security, affordability, loneliness, and availability of help.
The house that was perfect for raising a young family might not be the best for arthritic joints, walkers, and wheelchairs. Â Stairs, bathtubs, and flooring surfaces lend themselves to slips and falls. Â Doorways are often too narrow to move through with walkers and wheelchairs. Â Maintenance becomes another issue. Â Who will mow the yard, shovel the snow, and clean the gutters? Â My friend Judy, now in her seventies, stays in her home with the help of family and a hired lawn and snow removal service. She is lucky because she can afford to pay for help, whereas many cannot.
Some seniors find themselves in aging neighborhoods where crime finds an easy foothold. Â The Clint Eastwood film, Grand Torino, beautifully illustrated the reluctance of an aging widower to leave his community even though the area was no longer a place where everybody knew each other, and gang activity was rampant. Clint was a strong man with a shotgun at the ready. Â What would an elderly woman do?
Authors Doress-Worters and Lasken Siegal use the term â€œshelter povertyâ€ to describe the challenge of women living on a fixed or low income to meet the financial needs of housing expenses. (Doress-Worters & Diana Laskin Siegal, 1994) Â They state that for over 2 million owners, the cost of home ownership takes up to 85% of their income. Â Many elderly women are forced to rent, which in itself presents a problem when rates rise faster than fixed income. Â Homelessness is on the rise due to a lack of affordable housing for the aged.
What are some possible solutions for housing and aging women? Â One involves planning at an earlier age. Â Should a woman know she wants to age in place, she could envision how her needs might change in ten or fifteen years. Making physical improvements to the existing home might include: (Hogan, 2009)
-Raising the toilet seat and installing a grab-bar near the toilet. (Grab bars are useful in many areas of the home, like by the bed, or favorite recliner.)
-Getting a hand-held shower device for the tub, or install a walk-in tub/shower combination with little or no curb to step over.
-Putting rubber strips on slippery floors to limit falls.
-Put lever-type handles on doors and faucets for ease of use.
-Increasing the wattage of lighting to avoid dimly lit areas where falls could Â occur.
-Widening doorways to accommodate possible walkers and wheelchairs.
-Be aware of inconveniences in the kitchen incase the person needs to sit while cooking– lower counter tops, place outlets at a reasonable height, and make shelving user friendly.
-Consider how ramps might be installed by doorways.
Activist Maggie Kuhn was a firm believer in multi-generational living. Â If an elderly woman wants to stay in her own home, she might consider renting out rooms to other women, or perhaps college students who could help with chores and errands. Â My ex-husband rented a room from an elderly woman while attending the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Â Not only did he have a lovely place to stay, but his presence thwarted a would-be thief attempting to gain access through a lower level window. Â It was definitely a win-win situation for the woman and my ex.
Some women find they can stay in their own home by purchasing help through agencies like Home Instead, a company that hires out trained nurses and aides. Â The number of hours is variable and decided by the client, but it can be expensive.
Communal living has many benefits. Â Resources can be pooled to buy groceries, lower rent payments, and purchase basic necessities. Â Private rooms and shared living spaces provide both privacy and socialization. Â Duties like laundry and cooking can be shared.
Federal subsidies (section 8 subsidies) might be available to offset some of the costs of home ownership or renting. Â There is often a waiting list, yet fewer than 25% of eligible persons apply. (Doress-Worters & Diana Laskin Siegal, 1994)
Reverse mortgages are available which give a monthly payment to the homeowner, which would be repaid at the time of sale, or in some cases, would continue until the person dies and then the bank takes the property. Â The advantage is that the homeowner can remain in her home and still receive much needed income. It would be best to discuss this with potential heirs and/or a financial planner.
Perhaps the home is too large and it is time to sell. Â A woman may elect to downsize to a smaller home, a mobile home, a senior community or apartment. Some families add a small room or studio apartment to their homes so that an aging parent can live with them and yet maintain a sense of independence.
In any case, access to community social events, cafes, churches, hospitals, and drugstores becomes important to quality of life.Â The options are many and varied. However, for too many aging women low income and lack of resources limit choices others take for granted. Â Below is a small list of potential places to gain further information.
Area Agency on Agingâ€”n4a.org
National Aging in Place Councilâ€”naipc.org
Aging in Place Initiativeâ€”aginginplaceinitiative.org
Center for Aging Services Technologiesâ€”agingtich.org/about.aspx
American Association of Homes and Services for the Agingâ€”aahsa.org
National Association of Home Builders with certified aging-in-place specialistsâ€”nahb.org
To learn about universal designâ€”design.ncsu.edu/cud (Hogan, 2009)
Talking about the more sobering topics of aging gets boring fast.Â Itâ€™s easier to put off those thoughts for another day, isnâ€™t it?Â Nonetheless, I wanted to get you thinking about the possibilities that can be as wondrous as the house that comes to me in my dreams.Â If we have knowledge we have power, and that, my friends, is worth a bit of boredom.