Aging in Place Starts With Holistic Home Improvement
By Marianne Cusato,
Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture
Homeowners typically don’t consider how the home improvements they’re making today may help or hinder their quality of life down the road. But every home project — from roof repairs to kitchen remodels — offers an opportunity to create a home in which they can safely and comfortably live for decades to come (or “age in place,” as it’s often referred).
HomeAdvisor recently completed our annual survey to gain insight into how people are preparing their homes for aging in place. This year, we did things a little differently. First, we surveyed two groups of homeowners — one aged 55 to 75 and the other aged 75 and over. And second, we asked each group about their motives for completing home projects without first tying them directly to the term aging in place. Interestingly, in sharp contrast to the survey results we’ve seen in previous years — which indicated homeowners are not preparing for aging in place — we found this year that homeowners in both age groups are completing projects now that will facilitate their lives as they grow older. In fact, they’re even putting ease of living improvements ahead of aesthetics in their approach to home projects. The thing is: Most are not connecting these projects with either the term “aging in place” or the intention, even as they actively age in their homes.
As we’ve learned from past surveys, the term “aging in place” doesn’t tend to resonate with homeowners. That’s because people don’t think of themselves as aging — even when they are. There’s no specific age or moment in time at which people become officially “old.” Additionally, the stigma surrounding aging keeps most people in denial long past the point at which the process is clear. So, how do homeowners prepare for aging in place when they can’t admit that they’re aging in the first place? They perform regular maintenance and complete projects to keep their homes in good working order, for starters. And that sets them up to layer on the aging-related projects as their aging-specific needs are revealed.
This report examines the motivation behind home projects at different life stages, providing advice and perspective from both homeowners who’ve watched loved ones age in place and those who’ve aged in place first-hand. Ultimately, the takeaway is this: Taking a holistic approach to home improvement lays the foundation to help homeowners live better now and later, no matter their current age or objective. And they don’t have to call it aging in place to reap the benefits.
What is Aging in Place?
Aging in place is the act of remaining in our homes and communities as we get older, as opposed to moving in with family or entering a nursing home or assisted living facility.
According to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies1, in 2035, one in five people will be over 65 years old. And an overwhelming majority — 90 percent, according to AARP2, plans to remain in their homes as they age.
Every person who wishes to remain in their homes and maintain their quality of life as they get older — and every one of their loved ones and caretakers — should give some consideration to what it means, and what it means to prepare for, aging in place.
- A holistic approach to home improvement lays the foundation for aging in place. Keeping a regular home maintenance schedule — and keeping the future in mind when making improvements big and small — helps homeowners keep their homes in good working order. This not only ensures that their homes are project-ready when the time comes to make aging-specific improvements, but it also ensures that they’re not faced with costly, unexpected home disasters when they’re at their most vulnerable down the road.
- The term “Aging in Place” is elusive. Just 43 percent of participants aged 55 to 75 — and just 52 percent of participants over the age of 75 — say they’re familiar with the term.
- Homeowners are completing future-thinking projects without connecting them to aging in place. Survey respondents aged 55 to 75 and aged 75 and older are making home improvements that will facilitate aging, citing ease of living as their motive for completing most projects — even over safety and aesthetics.
- Life stages influence homeowners’ home project selections. While all participants cite ease of living as their motive for completing most home projects, homeowners in different life stages report completing the same home projects for different reasons.
- Watching loved ones struggle impacts how homeowners view aging in place. Roughly three in five homeowners aged 55-75 report seeing a loved one (a parent, sibling, partner, etc.) struggle to get around their home as they got older, further reporting that this experience has changed their feelings about how they will age in place personally.
- Planning pays off. Nearly half of homeowners aged 75 and over report renovating their homes in anticipation of getting older. Correspondingly, less than 30 percent report struggling to get around the house as they’ve aged.
Holistic Home Improvement Lays the Foundation for Aging in Place
While aging is a fact of life, aging uncomfortably, unsafely or unhappily doesn’t have to be a given. As one survey respondent in the 55 to 75 age group noted: It’s hard to anticipate the modifications homeowners may need to make as a result of aging, so some modifications — like grab bars or widened door frames — may need to be implemented as the need arises. But other home improvements — like self-cleaning gutters; accessible storage; and plumbing, walkway and roof repairs — not only offer greater ease of living in the short term, but they also stabilize the working order of a home for the long term, which provides the best foundation for aging in place as well as future aging in place improvements.
Typically, people think of projects like ramps, stair lifts and main-floor master suites as the key to facilitating aging in place, when in fact the inverse is true. As we heard from survey respondents both aged 55 to 75 and aged 75 and over, the key to facilitating aging in place is actually taking a holistic approach to home improvement leading up to aging in place — doing things like simplifying landscaping, repairing and replacing windows, swapping out door handles, and organizing closets and storage areas.
Take a front walkway, for example. If there are cracks or dips in the concrete, homeowners would want to address those existing safety issues before consider installing a wheelchair ramp or a railing that they’re not sure they’ll ever need. And installing self-cleaning gutters will not only make life easier in the short term, but it will also ensure that gutter cleaning is covered when climbing a ladder becomes too precarious later on.
Add grab bars and ramps and widen doorways
Phase 6 – Improve Accessibility:
Shift master bedroom to the first floor
Phase 5 – Improve Safety:
Renovate bathrooms, adding a no-threshold shower, shower bench and location for future grab bars
Phase 4 – Improve Ease of Living:
Install drawers in lower kitchen cabinets, add comfort-height toilets and install smart home tech
Phase 3 – Make Low-Cost Improvements:
Swap doorknobs for lever door handles, improve lighting, install a programmable thermostat and add closet organization
Phase 2 – Complete Maintenance Projects:
Repair the roof; install self-cleaning gutters; simplify landscaping; and repair any leaks, cracks or mold
Phase 1 – Lay the Groundwork:
Look for areas of your home that can be improved for general maintenance, ease of living, safety and accessibility
The Planning Pyriamid:
Think about preparing for aging in place as a pyramid: By establishing a home in good working order and understanding how home improvements and technologies work holistically to create a foundation for future needs, homeowners can effectively work their way from the bottom to the top. Starting with basic home maintenance projects like roof repairs, for example, they can move up to smart home tech and bathroom renovations — eventually having readied their homes and budgets for aging-specific improvements like grab bars, which may in the future become a necessity.
As homeowners age, they may experience vision and hearing loss, reduced mobility and reduced mental capacity, among other changes. And while it may not be possible to modify the home to prepare for every possible scenario, there is a lot homeowners can do in the interim to set themselves up for success — through projects big and small. In fact, every home maintenance, improvement and repair project offers an opportunity for homeowners to consider: “Are there choices I can make here that may make my life easier now and in the future?”
The good news is that many homeowners are completing projects now that will help them remain safely and comfortably in their homes as they get older. They’re just not attributing those projects to aging in place — or aging at all, for that matter. The next sections provide a glimpse into the motivations, learning experiences and recommendations of homeowners age 55 and over.
Easy Living Paves the Way for Easy Aging
Improved ease of living is a key motivator for homeowners making home improvements. Both homeowners aged 55 to 75 and homeowners aged 75 and older cite ease of living as the impetus for most of their home projects, even above aesthetics, safety, accessibility and increased home value. Interestingly, the projects they’re completing to improve ease of living — projects like installing smart thermostats, replacing appliances and replacing lower kitchen cabinets with drawers — will facilitate aging in place, even though only about half of respondents are familiar with the concept by name. (Presumably, homeowners find the term “ease of living” more relatable than the terms “aging in place” and “accessibility” because it doesn’t carry the same negative connotation.)
Homeowners’ motives for completing home projects change with age, as each life phase brings new challenges and opportunities. So, while both homeowners aged 55 to 75 and homeowners aged 75 and older cite ease of living as the impetus for most of their home projects, it’s not surprising to see that they are completing some of the same projects for different reasons.
Experience Is the Greatest Teacher
Watching a loved one struggle to get around their home has had a profound effect on homeowners. Of survey participants aged 55 to 75, 62 percent report having witnessed a sibling, parent or partner struggle with aging in place — and 60 percent say that the experience impacted their feelings about how they will age in place personally. Interestingly, many homeowners indicated that while they see a clear need to prepare their homes for aging in place as a result of watching others, they do not consider themselves old enough to warrant immediate changes.
Insights shared from survey participants aged 55 to 75 about watching loved ones age in place:
While three in five homeowners aged 55 to 75 recalls watching a loved one struggle with aging in place, just one in four over age 75 reports having trouble getting around their home as they’ve gotten older. This discrepancy may be attributed to the fact that the majority of respondents over age 75 report making home improvements for aging in place, either in anticipation of getting older or after becoming physically unable to stay at home without making modifications.
And more than one-third of homeowners report being unable to access certain parts of their homes; having to rely on the assistance of others to complete daily activities; and taking longer to complete simple tasks in the home due to barriers like steps, high cabinets and narrow doors. Further, while nearly half installed comfort height toilets, replaced appliances and installed grab bars in their bathrooms, many wished they’d also installed pull-out drawers in kitchen cabinets, renovated a bathroom, and changed door knobs to lever handles. These findings highlight the need for homeowners to plan ahead and consider all aspects of living as they make home improvements. After all, grab bars in the bathroom can’t help someone who insists on climbing a ladder to clean the gutters.
Insights shared from survey participants aged 75 and over about aging in place:
Bottom line, it doesn’t matter what motivates homeowners to complete home projects — or how they relate what motivates them with others. So long as they’re keeping up with home maintenance and making choices and modifications to improve the comfort and safety of their homes, homeowners will have laid the foundation for aging in place. And, they’ll have made it much easier for themselves to implement aging-specific projects as they become necessary.