Where Will You Live When You Grow Up?
There is no alternative to aging. No one stays young forever, but growing older does not have to be a painful process anymore.
—Dr. Isadore Rosenfeld,
Live Now—Age Later
Look at it this way: While most of us aspire to longevity, no one really wants to be old. In some parts of the world, old age is disparaged, while in others, it is considered life’s crowning glory. In our society, it can be either. The choice is our own.
We are the lucky generations—far ahead of our forebears, on the cutting edge of tomorrows more incredible that humankind ever has dared to predict! We have great new moments to live, new challenges, new joys. We have more time. With a nod to the past and an eye to the future, we can avail ourselves of alternatives now, revel in choices, celebrate the wonderful possibilities of longer, better lives.
It would be tragic to forfeit those years to an accident that might have been avoided, or to chores and responsibilities that deprive you of sweet opportunities life can offer. The mission of this book is to encourage you to be aware of your options, and be prepared—before the fact.
The need is easy to understand.
People age. Most dwellings do not keep pace. Our once-comfortable homes, designed for earlier years and different needs, have changed overnight, it seems, into obstacle courses and booby traps determined to infuse our lives with havoc and unwanted work. But this need not be that way. Many homes today are built comfortably downsized, designed to live in for a lifetime, replacing “big white elephants” with small gems of comfort, accessibility, safety, and easy-care, and are at one with their environment, wherever it may be. In most cases, special considerations can be made to prevent accidents, the major cause of injury among elders.
Aging is part of living, and the point of extended life is extended well-being. In addition to medical and technological advancements, great importance is now placed on living in elder-friendly, up-beat environments. Scientists say that successful aging depends more on attention to safe environments, as well as self-repair and enriching the brain, than on family genes, now estimated to account for only about 20 to 30 percent of age determination.
“How well we age depends more on how we live than on our genes,” says the MacArthur Foundation Consortium on Successful Aging. Being surrounded by safe material comforts goes a long way, the experts say. They further state that an elder-oriented home will both comfort us and discourage apathy because our relationship to our environment heavily determines our mental attitude and behavior. Up-beat homes that emphasize our abilities, not our disabilities, are not only more fun, but tantamount to successful aging.
Accentuating the good news of longer and healthier lives, studies continue to prove that we are less likely to become incapacitated by age than heretofore assumed. According to researchers of Duke University, Stanford University, and the University of Pennsylvania, disability rates are decreasing among the elderly, challenging the theory of steady deterioration. A study by the National Institute of Aging states, “The accelerating decline is dramatic and important news . . . as the older generation grows significantly, offering further evidence that we may be able to influence how we age.”
Knowing they will benefit by today’s research, the now fifty-something Baby Boomer generation and the Gen-Xers are ecstatic; their elders, equally so. But a big question remains—Where will we all live? Most homes occupied by elders are not safe. And alternative so-called senior facilities generally are greeted like news of an outbreak of the bubonic plague. The obvious answer, of course, is to adapt our own homes to present and future needs or to create new, more appropriate homes, sustainable homes that we will not “outgrow.”
Although studies have shown that today’s elders just want to stay put, close to friends and family in familiar surroundings, we sometimes forget that this may not be possible if our homes no longer are safe or appropriate for our aging selves. For example, they may be too big and too costly to care for, the neighborhood may have deteriorated, or bathrooms, kitchens, and stairways might be accidents waiting to happen. Sad to say, current statistics show that the majority of the elderly will do nothing about it—until it’s too late.
This book was written to help you avoid the home catastrophes that often befall elders, and to encourage your aging offspring to prepare their own homes, present or future, for almost certain longer lives. Its inspiration was born several years ago as a promise to Barbara.
At about sixty-five, Barbara was still catching rainbows, dreaming dreams, and working, always working, for others. At that time, after a long career as a journalist on a large city newspaper, a World War II correspondent, cause-advocate, trusted friend, and mentor to many, she was a volunteer public relations counselor for the Society of Friends and UNICEF. She spoke little about herself. I remember expressing my feelings to my longtime friend and mentor. “I want to be just like you when I grow up,” I said.
I did. I truly did. She understood.
About fifteen years later, she did get around to talking about Barbara. She had a problem, she said, and needed my professional help. The problem was the three-story Victorian home she had occupied for forty-six years. It wasn’t that she was incapacitated in any way, I must understand, just that she’d been noticing lately that the stairs seemed steeper and harder to navigate, and Seymour, her longtime feline companion who shook paws with you, still wanted his breakfast at six a.m.
“I’m afraid I shouldn’t live here much longer,” she said, “and I don’t know what to do. Should I rent a small apartment? Go to a community for seniors? Move into my granddaughter’s guest cottage? What should I take with me? All of this won’t fit.” Her graceful hands gestured toward the furnishings of the room that held so many memories, and then softly asked, “Where will you live when you grow up?”
Busy trying to balance life between my kids and my career, I hadn’t given any thought to where I wanted to live later on in life. I mumbled something about maybe moving to a warm climate, some day. Then Barbara spoke words I never thought I’d hear from her. “Will you help me? I can’t seem to make this decision myself.”
Of course I would, I replied.
“And will you also write it all down for others like me?”
“Yes, that too,” I said, having no idea at that time that my promise was the first step of a long pilgrimage of my own.
She continued, “Things are not the way they were when I was your age. Old people seemed older then. Nowadays, they’re living longer. But faster. Everything’s faster. The older I become, the more life seems to be dancing to a different beat around me. There’s too much to keep up with.”
She was right. Times have changed. New technologies are evolving even as we begin to understand the old, scientific breakthroughs that affect our daily lives, from the food we eat to the air we breathe. The future appears less mysterious, less intangible, and we are better able to plan for it. For example, large numbers of former Baby Boomers are assuming the responsibility for providing safe homes for their elders and planning ahead for their own tomorrows, even as they fervently assert that middle age does not begin until sixty. And seventy is young-old, and the real old-old doesn’t start until after eighty-five, if then! Words like pastures and rocking chairs have disappeared from their vocabularies. They are the beginning of “an ageless society.” Age is just a number! they say, and rate independence high on priority lists.
Independence is the magic wand of the future—if we do not ignore old age but, rather, embrace it, prepare for it, and then go on living the full good life, in comfort and safety. As my friend Barbara does.
She now enjoys the small first-floor apartment that we designed from the outdated kitchen, butler’s pantry, morning room, and verandah of her big, old house. The apartment overlooks the garden she still loves and tends, and is furnished with her favorite books, art, and family treasures. Financed by a home-building loan, the rest of the house has been converted into rental apartments, which provide Barbara with a comfortable income.
With that twinkle in her eye I know so well, and a lilt to her voice, she said one day, “A very attractive older gentleman moved in last week. Perhaps I shall invite him in for cocktails.”
This book fulfills my promise to Barbara: to help and encourage people of all ages, everywhere, to plan homes for when they “grow up.” This book also is meant to echo the way Barbara lives. “No!” she says, “Aging is not doom and gloom. Aging is continuing to do what I’ve always done, with a lot more wisdom, and less speed, which is good. It’s funny, the older I get, the less I hurry, and the more progress I seem to make! Life keeps getting better and better.”
The new millennium has only begun. Today, we are healthier and smarter, more active, longer-lived than ever before in history. Think of the possibilities—on the farm or the fast track, in a cottage or a condo—life past sixty, seventy, eighty, and onward can continue to be, or can become, our finest passage.
Whether we pare down or fix up, stay put or move on to where the grass is greener all year ’round, our basic expectations of our homes do not change, regardless of our age. They must provide safe shelter and comfort for our bodies and sustenance for our souls, and feelings of domestic peace in these times of world turmoil. Our homes are extensions of ourselves, our pleasures and, often, our dreams. It matters little whether they are old or new, mouse holes or mansions. Our homes are where we want to be.
Let ElderHouse help you stay there.
Part 1, Obstacle Courses and Booby Traps, expresses the need to be prepared for your elder years, to act before the fact. Because elders are just as heterogeneous as any other age group, the options are wide for adapting homes (retrofitting) to personal needs for safety and comfort: navigable stairs, compatible kitchens, safe bathrooms, as examples. Discussions and details are listed within the order of a “walk-through” in an average house, from the front door to the garden to the basement. Also discussed is sustainable living; that is, the use of human systems, such as passive solar design, that work with, not against, nature. References to requirements by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) also are included for those who are physically challenged.
Part 2, Small Gems Are Better than White Elephants, is about adjusting to and furnishing your downsized home. It also discusses the principles and advantages of ecological housing and sustainable design. This section is arranged according to basic interior design elements such as color, lighting, scale, ecology, and the like. Finally, in part 3, Building Your Home—Your Way, I provide pencil-to-paper directions and design aids. Throughout, you will find real life stories to inspire you and small hints to help you.
It is my true warm wish that this book add pleasure and enthusiasm as well as direction to the planning of your elder home. Think of it as the first step toward a safe, independent, upbeat place to live, and as a catalyst to your own creativity, waiting like the genie in the bottle to be uncorked. Joyful anticipation has a way of becoming happy reality. Thoughts are things.
Your elder home can be a gem—small perhaps, but well set, sparkling, and prized. Living well has no dimensions, no price tag. And no age limit.
To your good life—go well!
Boca Raton, Florida, 2002