Getting Old

Edmund Marsh

I COULD BE KIND TO my home and say it has rustic charm, but that would be pretentious. The truth is, it’s an old house, built in 1930 by my maternal grandparents. It sits on a remnant of the farm my family once owned. It’s a place I love, and where I’d like to grow old, and therein lies the challenge.

More than 20 years ago, my father and I extensively renovated the house inside and out. Within the house, every surface was replaced or refinished. My wife gets credit for a share of the painting. We gave it air conditioning to tame the hot, Georgia summers and a furnace to take some of the chill out of winter. The house is still old and drafty, however. Warmth from the wood heater in the fireplace, fed by trees that I cut on the property, draws the family near when nights are frigid.

Though the inside of the house is mostly neat, I can’t say the same for the surrounding property. The rambling yard is decidedly weedy, divided by haphazard beds of old-fashioned bulbs and flowering shrubs lovingly planted by my grandmother, supplemented by annual additions from my wife and me. On three sides, it’s difficult to tell where the yard ends and the surrounding small woodland begins.

Out back, the old smokehouse, which once held hams and bacon, is now home to a clutter of tools and is in obvious need of repair. The dilapidated barn is beyond repair, and is waiting to be put out of its misery.

Wildlife wanders about when Lottie the Labrador retriever is asleep on the porch. This year, on St. Patrick’s Day morning, after letting Lottie out of her kennel, a familiar sound rang out from near the vegetable garden. From our porch, my wife and I observed a wild turkey strut and gobble, until Lottie also spied him and ended the day’s birdwatching.

Since I must take responsibility for the somewhat disheveled landscape, I’ll also claim credit for the order within the productive garden. The vegetable beds are neat, with only a few weeds. The berry bushes are tidy and well mulched. This area within the deer-proof fence is my sanctuary, where for a brief time my mind is at ease, thinking only of soil-building and crop rotations, or calculating the days until I pick the season’s first ripe tomato.

If my words hold a hint of sentimentality, it’s because I can’t hide my feelings when I describe my home. Living within the old structures and roaming the grounds are old and cherished memories from summers spent with my grandparents, along with many more memories built while residing here with my wife and daughter.

The trouble is, old houses weren’t designed with old people in mind. Steps are hard to go up and dangerous to get down. Bathrooms can hold a boatload of hazards, from a layout that’s difficult to navigate to slippery surfaces waiting to encourage a fall. If doorways are too narrow, they can be barriers to walkers and wheelchairs when the time comes for a little mobility assistance. Even before that eventuality, replacing light bulbs and smoke alarm batteries might require a younger helping hand. For me, maintaining my rambling yard and warm fireplace will eventually be impossible.

As physical therapists, my wife and I are under no illusions about the effect of time on aging bodies. Since older patients make up a steady slice of my caseload, I’m frequently either helping them manage their current lifestyle challenges, or counseling them to prepare for those that are on the way. Like it or not, when it comes to living independently in our home environment, we are all on a downward trajectory.

Armed with that cheerful thought, what can my wife and I do to extend the time we’re able to live in the home we love? This has been a casual topic between us for a number of years, but is lately inching toward the preliminary planning stage. For starters, handrails added to the entry steps will increase safety when coming and going. Later, a wheelchair ramp may be a necessity. Fortunately, our house is just one level. But if there were stairs to a second story, a stair lift might have been needed to maintain accessibility to that part of the house.

In the bathroom, we’ll replace our present shower and tub combo with a shower that can accommodate a seat, and later a shower wheelchair, with plenty of grab bars for steady maneuvering. We already have a tall toilet, but strategically placing grab bars nearby will further ease the rise from sitting to standing.

Our house was built with wide doorways, so no modification is necessary if a wheelchair is needed. It’s also already well-lit, which helps older eyes find the safest path, and we can add lever-type door handles that are kind to arthritic hands. Eliminating all of our throw rugs is a safety practice we can employ to prevent falls.

The wood heater was a hand-me-down gift from a friendly, older stranger at the local hardware store. Unlike me, its function is unchanged after 20 years, with only a new blower motor needed to keep it going. I’ll replace it with a gas heater, and have a line run from the tank that currently supplies the furnace. Maybe I can pass along the current wood heater to another energetic homeowner.

I don’t yet have a clear solution for the gardens. But instead of expanding the vegetable and flower beds, I’ve begun reducing their size and hence their required maintenance. I’m also making plans for either repairing or demolishing the old outbuildings, while I’m still able. My wife encourages me to pay to have this done, but it’s painful to pry the dollars from my frugal fingers for a job I can still do myself.

The modifications needed to keep us in our home are still some years away—or maybe not. The future has a way of rushing in before we’re ready. But like 18th century Scottish poet Robert Burns’s “tim’rous beastie,” I’ve laid my best plans, and hope nothing turns me out of my house until I’m ready to leave.

Ed Marsh is a physical therapist who lives and works in a small community near Atlanta. He likes to spend time with his church, with his family and in his garden thinking about retirement. His favorite question to ask a young person is, “Are you saving for retirement?” Check out Ed’s earlier articles.

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