PREPARING FOR infirmity is one of the most important—and least popular—parts of financial planning. A neighbor’s recent stroke provides a stark example of this challenge. He’s in his mid-80s and has some underlying health problems.
Our neighbor lives in a second-story condominium, with external stairs as access. The stairs end at a narrow deck, with a right-hand turn into the home. An overhang blocks the screen door from opening fully.
When he had a stroke, the emergency medical technicians (EMTs) had to take off the screen door to get the stretcher out. In addition to the restricted access, his home’s interior is not set up for an infirm octogenarian. The bathrooms are small, and the hallways and doorways are narrow. Someone in a wheelchair, or using a walker, would struggle with basic daily activities.
The vast majority of homes in our town aren’t designed for people with disabilities. My parents lived with us for the last decade of their lives, and we needed to make modifications to our home to accommodate them.
My father had heart and lung diseases, the result of 40 years of smoking. In his last years, he used a walker and was on oxygen. We installed safety bars in the bathrooms, and a stairlift to help him reach the second-floor bedrooms.
My mother experienced a rapid decline due to a brain tumor from B-cell lymphoma. The tumor shut down the left side of her body. She went from walking normally to a walker to a wheelchair in about three months.
Her illness was five years after my father died, and we had removed the stairlift. We quickly had it put back in. We also built a large deck and ramp off the front door, and removed the doors to her bathroom. Eventually, we had a hospital bed installed in her room. For the last few months, she required round-the-clock care.
As challenging as these experiences were, we were lucky. My wife is an excellent nurse—well trained, experienced and the most caring person I know. She took the lead and made sure my parents were well cared for.
We were blessed with lots of help. My brothers and their wives, our children, and our nieces and nephews all helped. My mother-in-law was a retired nurse, and she pitched in, too. My mother had worked in the medical field and had close friends who were nurses. Their willingness to help was amazing and made our lives easier during this period.
Even with all this assistance, caring for a loved one with a serious illness was a big challenge. As we age, it’s important to anticipate our housing needs and desires, and develop a plan that accommodates future infirmities.
A good friend and former colleague set a good example of clear-eyed planning. He’s single and in his mid-70s. In his late 40s, he purchased a carriage home with first-floor living and an easy entrance. Exterior maintenance is taken care of by his homeowners’ association. This house will suit him well unless he can’t take care of himself.
For that possibility, he researched and found a staged senior living facility near his siblings, nieces and nephews. He put down a deposit and is guaranteed a spot within a certain number of months of a request. When he feels he can no longer manage his home or care for himself, he will notify the facility and begin the transition.
Many retirees see retirement as an opportunity to try a new style of living or a new location. My wife and I recently sold our primary home and moved to our beach home. Now, we’re thinking about its design.
It’s the first floor of a two-story condominium building. But “first floor” is a bit of a misnomer. To meet flooding concerns, the first floor is eight steps above ground level at the front and six steps up at the side entrance. We couldn’t get a wheelchair into our home, except by carrying it up the stairs.
Several local houses have retrofitted elevators in their homes. A friend’s neighbor installed one to accommodate a child with disabilities. They installed a free-standing tower containing the elevator at the rear of the home, with short bridges to each level.
The interior of our home has two levels. The main living area at the front of the house consists of a living room, dining room and kitchen. The rear half is five steps up and contains the bedrooms and bathrooms.
We are planning to renovate our bathrooms by enlarging the shower, widening the shower entrance and adding grab bars. We need to see if the bathroom can have a wider entrance, too, perhaps by installing a pocket door.
If you choose to age in place, take a realistic look around and decide what needs to change. With minor modifications, you can often remain at home for many years. Make the modifications as early as you can. You don’t want to wait until the ambulance is on its way to realize the EMTs can’t get into the house.
Richard Connor is a semi-retired aerospace engineer with a keen interest in finance. He enjoys a wide variety of other interests, including chasing grandkids, space, sports, travel, winemaking and reading. Follow Rick on Twitter @RConnor609 and check out his earlier articles.
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Good article and advice that all seniors need to know in planning their futures. My wife and I are in late 70s and are fortunate to live in a ranch home. We have a ramp on the back deck as my wife has troubles with stairs. We will need to make adjustments to accommodate one of us if (when) we need a wheel chair, and also need grab bars and other senior things. We hope to live out our lives in our home of 50 years if the Good Lord blesses us to do that.
A lot of equipment can be purchased online at reasonable cost, such as ramps that don’t need to be permanently installed. Creative individuals, like my courageous late husband who had post polio, can improvise with strong ropes when extra support is needed and think of minor physical adjustments, such as removing doors, including closet doors. Simple bed rails that slide under the mattress can make getting in and out of bed much easier. Power wheelchairs are a blessing, and, if you can afford it, a van-type car with a ramp that comes down from one of the sliding doors, can give a disabled person tremendous freedom to keep on driving and, later, keep on traveling in the van. He would go down the front door ramp and up the car ramp! These vans can be found used and also hold their value.
But what about a surviving spouse?
I am divorced and childless and over 70. I have a deposit on an apartment in a new block that a local non-profit CCRC is building. I expect to move in next year. I will be able to transition to Assisted Living and Skilled Nursing on site, if necessary. The CCRC has sound finances and a benevolent fund if residents run out of money. I have a variant of rheumatoid arthritis and I would not be able to continue to live alone if the medication I take stops working.
The good CCRCs in my area have four year wait lists for one bedroom apartments and ten year wait lists for two bedroom apartments. Thanks to the new building I will move to a two bedroom apartment with a shorter wait. People interested in this option should make a deposit well ahead of time – usually you can turn down apartments until you are ready to move. You need to be able start in Independent Living in most cases, so waiting until you need assistance doesn’t work.
Not everyone has children, and those who do may not have children living nearby, or in a position to help.
This is a problem fairly easily handled by having enough money to provide for your own home care and by having the paperwork that will allow your kids to make decisions about your living arrangements should you become incapable. My parents had both, and while we still invested a lot of time in managing their affairs in their later years we did not have to move them into our house or do the around the clock care ourselves, because they had the money to pay for it themselves. That’s a much better outcome, in my opinion, than moving into your kids’ home and disrupting their lives. I know that is necessary when there isn’t enough money to fund a better option, but as a responsible parent I see that as one reason to become financially independent. Not just to leave a nice inheritance, which we will, but to avoid becoming a huge burden on grown kids who need to live their own lives.
Thanks for writing about such an important topic.
I learned this lesson many years ago when both of my parents became seriously ill at the same time. They owned a ‘reverse living’ home where the kitchen, bathroom and bedrooms were all upstairs. Obviously it wasn’t a good situation.
My husband and I purchased a home in a 55+ community a couple of years ago. Every home (18,000 of them) in the community is one level and built with accessibility in mind. The showers have built in seats and lots of grip bars. The hallways are wide. The recreational facilities have adaptive modifications to make sure even the most disabled residents can enjoy many of the activities offered.