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Home Safe Home

A national 'aging in place' movement helps seniors stay where they love to live.


It is one of life's most wrenching decisions. As the infirmities of age confront us, do we leave the familiarity and memories of our homes for somewhere more accommodating to wheelchairs, broken hips or illness?

Given a choice, most people would rather remain at home. From that desire has sprung a national "aging in place" movement that helps people adapt their homes to allow them to stay in familiar surroundings, near friends and neighbors, for as long as possible.

Gerontologists estimate that there are at least 1 million older people--and probably many more--living with mobility and health problems and that their ranks will soar as the baby boomer generation begins hitting age 65 in 2011.

Most U.S. homes--the White House included--weren't built with growing older in mind. President Clinton, once hobbled by a knee injury, was helped by special floor tape to keep him from stumbling again.

"I call this Peter Pan housing," says Jon Pynoos, director of the Home Modification Action Project at USC's Andrus Gerontology Center. "Most housing was designed not thinking about anybody who would be disabled or have a chronic condition."

The front steps, staircases, narrow doorways, low electric sockets, high kitchen cabinets and fixed shower heads that work for young families pose hardships--and hazards--for elders. One in three Americans over 65 suffers a fall each year, often in the home, which can cause serious injury and depression and propel them into a downward slide toward death. Suburban housing developments that promise green lawns and open space sometimes breed isolation once residents' driving abilities diminish.

A few early studies suggest that some basic home modifications to improve safety and make it easier to maneuver about the home can forestall hospitalization and nursing home care as seniors grow more frail. And the savings that result should be attractive to health care insurers focused on cutting medical spending.

Still, cost and access remain obstacles. Most seniors or their families pay out of pocket for home modifications. And only a well-informed minority discover the scattered government programs that offer financial aid to help people remain in their homes so they can enjoy the comfort of communities where they've raised children and paid taxes.

Martha Griswold knows something about improvising to cope with changing physical needs. Born with spina bifida, a spinal cord defect, she obtained master's degrees in religious education and political science before turning to a career in social work.

Now 69 and executive director of the Living Independently in the Valley Center, she uses her own experiences with disability to help others cope with physical limitations that can lead to a sense of hopelessness.

Crutches helped for most of her life, but in her 50s, she says, "my arm and my stronger leg began to say, 'I don't want to do that.' " She began using a wheelchair, which meant making some changes at home.

The tan stucco house on a quiet Pasadena street where she and her husband live had one major barrier: a two-step entrance. Griswold's father, now 91, generously provided the $1,500 to replace the steps with a gently sloped garden pathway, now a showpiece of aesthetics and practicality.

'I Can Have Guests in Wheelchairs'

The Griswolds, who live modestly, made other unobtrusive changes. They made the drop-off from their driveway to the street more gradual and replaced steps to the back patio with another concrete ramp.

"It means I can invite people over. I can have guests in wheelchairs," Griswold says.

The biggest expense was the $7,000 they spent to convert a bedroom closet into a small, tiled second bathroom, with a hand-held shower, floor drain and grab bars.

Griswold, a voluble and straightforward woman, understands how physical needs can put a strain on the family. Fiercely independent, she also created a bedside office for herself, equipped with easy-to-reach shelves and a special pullout work surface for typing.

She purchased a used overhead lift to help her get in and out of bed and rely less on her husband, George, a 70-year-old artist who has slowed down himself since having surgery several years ago. The remodeling has made his life more comfortable too. "I had been afraid I would slip in the bathroom," he said, until he started using the bathroom grab bars installed for his wife and added some nonskid tub strips for himself.

"You do things as they seem necessary," his wife advises. "A lot of people really only need to get rid of those throw rugs that are tripping them up and find a way to make the bathroom floor not so slippery, or do something about the tub."

For low-income seniors, local handyman programs, which operate with loans, sliding fees or grants, furnish ramps, stair rails or grab bars that can mean the difference between being driven from home or staying put.

Ask Donna Troupe.

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