The vast majority of aging Americans want to stay in their homes and live independently for as long as possible, but many haven’t considered what needs to be done to achieve “aging in place,” a new poll reveals.
Nearly 9 in 10 Americans (88%) between 50 and 80 years of age said it’s important to remain in their homes as they grow older, the latest University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging found.
But nearly half (47%) admitted they’d given little or no thought to the steps they’d need to take so they could remain safely and comfortably at home in their old age.
“So many older adults want to be able to stay at home for as long as possible, but it just doesn’t seem as though most are really thoughtful about what that means and the sorts of ways in which they have to prepare,” said Sheria Robinson-Lane, an assistant professor with the University of Michigan School of Nursing, and co-author of a report on the poll findings.
The AARP-sponsored poll found that only 1 in 3 middle-aged and older folks (34%) said their home has the necessary features that would allow them to age in place. Another 47% said it probably does, and 19% said it does not.
Common accessibility features people reported in their homes were a ground-floor bathroom (88%) and bedroom (78%).
But after that, few people appeared to have homes outfitted for easy and safe aging.
Only about half (54%) had door frames wide enough for a wheelchair; 32% had lever-style door handles, and 19% had home entrances with ramps or no stairs.
About 36% of bathrooms had shower chairs or benches or raised-height toilet seats; 32% had grab bars, and just 7% had barrier-free showers.
What if you fall and you’re alone?
These are the sort of basic precautions needed to prevent falls, said Ramsey Alwin, president and CEO of the National Council on Aging.
“Falls are a big area of concern for us,” Alwin said. “Last year alone, there were more than 3 million injuries related to falls, and that resulted in over 800,000 hospitalizations.”
Many older Americans also might not have the sort of social supports and assistance that they’ll need to remain in their homes.
More than 1 in 4 (28%) said they live alone. Of those, 48% said they don’t have someone in their lives who could help them if needed with personal care such as bathing or dressing.
On the positive side, a majority of aging Americans said they do have someone who could help with grocery shopping (84%); household chores (80%); managing their finances (79%), and personal care (67%)
But just 19% said they’re very confident they could afford to pay for someone for that help. Nearly two-thirds said they probably couldn’t afford it.
Alwin said it’s not surprising that many people haven’t weighed the implications of aging.
“Folks want to age in their home but the reality is they’re often living paycheck to paycheck, managing chronic conditions related to heart and diabetes,” Alwin said. “It’s one foot in front of the next for so many, just sort of putting out those immediate fires and making ends meet and trying to address their health and wellness.”
As a result, often there isn’t that long-term thinking, she said.
“Never mind the fact that we’re all in denial that we’re aging, even though with our first breath, we sure are,” Alwin continued. “It’s sort of an American tradition that we deny that reality.”
Robinson-Lane suggests that people strategizing how they’d like to age should start by making a list of the things that are important to them.
“First, consider if your current house is the house that you want to grow old in,” she said. “And if it isn’t, start to think about where you want to go.”
About 1 in 5 older adults (21%) said they’d moved in the past five years, the poll found. More than half (52%) had moved to a home that was easier to get around; 49% to a smaller home, and 34% closer to relatives.
Once you’re where you want to grow old, you should take stock of your home and figure out if it has the features you’ll need to stay safe.
Alwin suggests that everyone — senior or not — conduct a fall-prevention inspection of their home.
“A couple of simple questions will help you ensure your space is falls-free,” she said. “Look at those area rugs. They are the danger zone. Think about how you’re using stairs. Make sure you’re avoiding wearing socks on those stairs. Can you add some level of rug or grip to make those stairs a little bit more friendly?”
These are the sort of “low-cost to no-cost changes and modifications that can be made to the home to make it that much safer, so it can age with you,” Alwin said.
An aging person also should consider whether there are ground-floor rooms that could be used for sleeping and bathing, so stairs can be avoided as much as possible, Robinson-Lane said.
Further, seniors should plan for the assistance they will need — list the people, businesses and organizations that might be able to help out when necessary.
Make friends with technology
And, Robinson-Lane added, seniors who want to stay in their homes also might need to get a bit more tech-savvy.
There are lots of voice-activated systems such as iHome or Echo devices that enable seniors to call for assistance without having to remember a phone number, she said. These devices can also help people keep grocery lists or reminders of daily activities.
Even appliances have gone high-tech, with safety features like cooking stoves that are enabled for Wi-Fi and feature automatic shutoff, Robinson-Lane added.
But only half of older adults (49%) reported having at least one smart home device. The most common were voice-controlled devices (21%); smart thermostats (18%), and doorbell cameras (16%).
Fewer than 10% reported having each of the following devices designed for safety: smart stove alarms; bath temperature monitors; water leak detectors; smart medication pillboxes, or emergency response systems.
“There’s a stereotype about older adults that they may not be as engaged with technology, and I think the pandemic has changed that significantly,” Robinson-Lane said. “People have had to become more comfortable with some technologies like video calling, but that hasn’t necessarily extended to some of the other ways that you’re able to use technology for assistance.”
The survey was conducted online and by phone in January and February with a randomly selected group of nearly 2,300 U.S. adults ages 50 to 80. The margin of error is plus or minus 1 to 3 percentage points for questions asked of the full sample and higher among subgroups.
The National Council on Aging has a Falls Free Checkup tool for your home.
SOURCES: Sheria Robinson-Lane, PhD, MHA, RN, assistant professor, University of Michigan School of Nursing, Ann Arbor; Ramsey Alwin, MBA, president and CEO, National Council on Aging, Arlington, Va.; National Poll on Healthy Aging, University of Michigan, April 13, 2022