If you are a longtime homeowner and thinking ahead to your next stage in life, you’re probably familiar with the idea of aging in place. You might already be considering renovation projects such as installing grab bars in your bathroom or widening your doorways to help you stay put. You’re not alone in your pursuit: AARP reports that about 76% of Americans age 50 and older hope to stay in their homes, and 77% want to stay in their neighborhoods as long as possible. Renovations are just a part of what you need to make aging in place work for you. While it’s typically less expensive to remain in your home than to pay for assisted living, that doesn’t mean it’s a no-brainer to stay put. You’ll still have a long to-do list with items such as planning how you will manage maintenance and care (for both your home and yourself) as you age and face health challenges. Be aware that strengthening your social fabric now may be just as important as shoring up your finances and installing a curb-less shower. Building a network of support among friends and neighbors, and establishing strong ties to the community play important toles in keeping older adults healthy and functioning according to the experts. You won’t age in place well if you’re isolated and alone, a reality you don’t want to overlook as you consider your housing and financial options.
Aging in place can be more challenging than you anticipate. While most seniors say they want to age in their homes, a much smaller percentage of them actually manage to accomplish it. Transportation is often a problem. When you can no longer drive, you can’t get to medical appointments, run errands, or attend social outings. Many people discover that long term care costs outpace savings – even when you stay at home. Older homes can be costly to maintain and downsizing to a smaller one closer to a city center may be more expensive than you planned. The worst-case scenario is to find yourself “stuck in place”. You’re still in your home, but you aren’t able to age comfortably because you can’t afford to make needed improvements and you’re increasingly isolated. The good news, however, is that you can start now to make aging in place successful even if you’re a few years away from making a decision. Simply having the idea on your radar allows you time to save for renovation projects and to make an overall plan. It’s difficult and unpleasant to think about how you’re going to age and what life will be like when your mobility is limited, but forcing yourself to begin preparing early will pay off later. The definition of aging in place is flexible and still evolving as more and more older Americans find new ways to enable them to stay in their homes. It often means one-floor living or sharing your home, or you might sell your longtime home for a smaller “forever home” closer to amenities. Regardless of which arrangement best fits you, using these moves now will help you successfully age in place comfortably. If there’s truly no place like home for you, there are ways to make it work.
Move #1: Start Early
If you wait until you have a fall or illness to make modifications to your home, it may be more costly and certainly will be a bigger hassle than if you begin planning well in advance. However, it’s important to make sure aging in place is right for you before you start thinking about construction projects. Are you really willing to build and strengthen social connections? Between you and your partner, who initiated most of your social outings? Avoiding becoming isolated doesn’t happen overnight, particularly if you live in a more rural area with fewer interactions with neighbors and less walkability. Decide if you’re ready to be proactive and can handle aging in place as opposed to living in a senior housing community, which might offer many planned or scheduled activities. Make sure you are as fit and healthy as possible to increase the likelihood you’ll be successful at staying at home. Strength and balance training can help you stave off falls and exercising regularly may help cognitive functions. Work closely with your primary care provider, and start an exercise program now. Review your surrounding community to make sure it will have the amenities that you need. Something as simple as going to a coffee shop and listening to the hum of conversations around you can help you feel less lonely. Figure out if there are medical facilities, grocery stores, and places to socialize that are easy to access and enough walkable options to make it worth staying. Keep the “Four ‘S’ Factors” (safety, services, social connections, and stimulation) top of mind while evaluating your community.
Move #2: Go Slow
It might seem intimidating to look around a large house with multiple bedrooms, stairs and levels, and wonder how you could ever make it age-friendly. Remember you don’t have to do everything at once. Tackle projects in increments and you can gradually create a safe and livable space. Transform a main level screened porch or office into a future bedroom and remodel a powder room into a full bath, and you’ve created a single-floor living space. You can retain your remaining upstairs bedrooms to eventually house full-time, live-in caretakers, which is something many people fail to consider in their aging plans.
If you start to feel overwhelmed, it may be a good idea to schedule a consultation with an architect familiar with accommodations required to age in place. When looking for a consult, keep an eye out for a Certified Aging-In-Place Specialist (CAPS) professional – a designation jointly designed by AARP and the National Association of Home Builders. While many CAPS professionals are homebuilders, they can also be health professionals who are experts in mobility issues.
Don’t wait too long to start so that you can still have control over your renovations. As we age it becomes harder to communicate our ideas, so even though we may know exactly what we want we may be unable to voice our preferences.
Move #3: Figure out your Finances
If you’ve lived in your home for many years, your equity may be your most available source of financing. Homeowners age 62 and older have high levels or home ownership and are sitting on record levels of home equity. While it may be your most affordable option for financing a remodel, it’s important to understand the trade-offs involved when you tap into your home equity.
You want to avoid using a credit card for any financing since interest rates will be much higher than you’re your other options. Taking out a Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC) or a reverse mortgage to pay for renovations or in-home care is generally preferable, but is not always a no-brainer. You still owe property taxes and insurance on a reverse mortgage, and the interest rates on a HELOC are usually adjustable and could go up. If you intend to leave your home to your children or other heirs after you die, these options may mean you leave behind less than you expected. Consider other alternatives: If you have adult children, see if you can come to an agreement where they help pay for renovations now and you remunerate them with your home after your death. Check with a financial planner and see if it makes sense for you to refinance or to tap into a ROTH account. Have them model different scenarios such as various combinations of home equity and other funds to determine your most favorable financial arrangement. They can also help you to come to terms with and understand the very important fact that you’re not very likely to see a return on your aging-in-place investments.
Your simplest strategy may be to include projected renovation costs in your overall retirement budget. Count your aging-in-place renovations as a one-time expense you’re going to incur once every few years in addition to your home’s regular maintenance so it’s worked into your budget and doesn’t cause a sudden financial hardship.
Move #4: Choose Your Forever Home
If your house is simply too big for you and too expensive to renovate, or your neighborhood is isolated and lacks the amenities you’re looking for, you’re probably considering downsizing and moving to a smaller home closer to a town center. Unfortunately, many people who downsize find out it’s more costly than expected. Assuming you’ll save money or generate a windfall by downsizing your home is one of the largest retirement fallacies. This is especially true for seniors looking for their forever homes, as they’re competing for limited housing stock, and they’re not only competing with other seniors but also a younger generation of buyers looking for starter homes. It’s becoming more and more expensive to downsize as the lack of supply keeps driving up prices. If you can swing it, however, finding that forever home in a supportive community can be a way to age well.
Move #5: Create an Alternative Income Stream
If you can’t swing a forever home and you still want to either downsize or stay where you are, you may need an alternative source of income. An increasingly popular one among seniors is home sharing. By renting out a room or a floor of your home you can generate enough cash flow to pay for a remodel. Home sharing is popular for more than just the added income; it helps seniors who are experiencing empty-nest syndrome and don’t want to live alone. However, before you list your house on a home-sharing service make sure you draw up a formal lease to set up clear boundaries when sharing your home.
If home sharing isn’t for you, consider a growing number of other alternative arrangements, such as an accessory dwelling unit. More communities are relaxing zoning laws to allow for homeowners to build a second, small dwelling on their properties, such as a tiny house in the backyard. You can bring in extra income or house a family member, or move into a dwelling unit that a family member built for you. Whether you go that path or take a more traditional route, with some planning and effort you can find or create a forever home for your final years.