Hyla Melnick, 83, a pianist, and her husband, Bob, 87, a retired ob-gyn, have no intention of leaving their Larchmont home. Both are happy where they are, and Hyla, who performs locally, won’t abide giving up her piano—something that a move elsewhere could necessitate.
The Melnicks are among a growing number of seniors around the country who are choosing to age in place—that is, to remain in their own homes rather than relocate to a senior residence. According to a 2010 AARP study, most people (nearly 90 percent) over age 65 want to stay in their homes for as long as possible, and 80 percent believe their current home is where they will always live.
In Westchester, the implications of these findings are significant, as the county estimates that roughly one in five residents is age 60 or older. Moreover, nearly 30 percent of seniors live alone.
What accounts for the widespread interest in staying put? “It’s a cultural change,” says Rachel Adelson, author of Staying Power: Age-Proof Your Home for Comfort, Safety and Style (Sage Tree Publishing, 2013). “Experts say people are living longer. They often enjoy good health and may be able to work longer. As this happens, the question shifts from ‘Where am I going to retire?’ to ‘How am I going to retire?’” Surveys show people want to stay near their friends and family members, their social and volunteer activities, their doctors, and maybe the workplace.”
Many seniors “don’t see themselves in a ‘retirement community’ designed by someone else,” adds Lois Steinberg, president and cofounder of the Center for Aging in Place, a Mamaroneck-based nonprofit that mentors community residents who want to start a group. “They tend to be independent and want to remain in control.”
Still, aging in place can be challenging. Managing healthcare needs and costs can be daunting, while physical changes can lead to safety concerns. And, of course, loneliness can be a huge problem.
For those who are aging in place or would like to, Bernard Krooks, founding partner of the law firm Littman Krooks LLP (with offices in White Plains, New York City, and Dutchess County) recommends making sure key legal documents are in order. “You should sign a financial power of attorney, so whomever you appoint can make financial decisions for you in case you cannot do so,” he says. “This way, someone has the financial and legal authority to pay your bills, the mortgage, and daily expenses.” You should also appoint a healthcare proxy who can make medical decisions in case you become incapacitated, he says. And, of course, you will want to have a will.
Krooks, who is a former president of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, says it’s also essential to determine how to pay for long-term care if and when you need it. “In-home care can run several thousand dollars a month, and it can be a rude awakening to find that Medicare won’t cover it,” he says. Long-term health insurance can be very expensive, and few insurance companies make it available.
Overall, he recommends consulting with a certified elder-law attorney, who can help construct a plan for long-term needs. “You’ll be better prepared and have a better shot at aging in place if you do this ahead of time, rather than having your family scramble when you get sick,” Krooks says.
Home modifications are also essential, as falls and other accidents are a big worry. Fortunately, many fixes are fairly simple and affordable, according to Tom Ashley, a Baton Rouge home remodeler and chair of the Board of Governors of CAPS, a certified aging-in-place specialist certification developed by the National Association of Home Builders.
Ashley says common bathroom modifications include installing a zero-degree entrance to the shower to reduce the risk of slipping and opting for raised countertops to minimize the need to lean down or reach over. Grab-bars in the shower and taller, “comfort height” toilets are also beneficial, as are lever-type faucet handles, which can be easier to handle than knobs you push
In the kitchen, Ashley recommends cabinets with full-extension pullout shelves and raised-height dishwashers, both of which can reduce leaning and bending.
Adelson, the author of Staying Power, adds that there are simple steps people can take to make their home safer and more comfortable. “Pick up loose rugs and other tripping hazards, and tie up electrical cords,” she says. And brighten up household lighting. “Make sure it’s even and consistent, reducing shadows and minimizing glare,” she says.
Adelson also suggests installing stairway banisters on both sides to prevent falls, and keeping loud timers in the kitchen to help ensure that hearing or concentration difficulties don’t get in the way of turning off the oven at the right time.
But even independent-minded seniors need to rely on others if they intend to age in place successfully, experts say. Traveling to buy groceries or to go to medical appointments can be difficult in the suburbs for those who no longer drive, and lack of transportation or an available companion can stop people from enjoying cultural events, workshops or seminars, or even just a nice dinner out.
To address these issues, an increasing number of programs are cropping up in Westchester. These include seven local, nonprofit Aging in Place organizations, which serve residents in Scarsdale, Larchmont, Mamaroneck, White Plains, Rye, northwest Yonkers, Somers, and Bronxville. Additional groups are forming in New Rochelle and Tarrytown/Sleepy Hollow. Membership typically runs from one to a few hundred dollars a year (although financial help may be available). Fundraising and/or endowments help defray costs, and most groups rely on volunteers who carry out their programs and services.
Among the local Aging in Place organizations is At Home in Scarsdale, which serves about 60 members, according to Program Coordinator Susan Gilbert. The organization has a van and driver, so it can provide transportation to medical appointments or other essential destinations. The van also transports members on group trips to museums or the theater. “It’s not easy for people to connect socially if they have family or friends who have moved or passed away,” Gilbert says. “So they enjoy the opportunity to take the van together on a trip.”
At Home on the Sound, with 150 members in Larchmont and Mamaroneck, also helps older people connect with one another. “We have lectures and workshops on a range of topics,” says Elaine Weingarten, executive director. “We have trips to museums and theaters, as well as a foreign-language conversation club, a men’s club, and bridge and Scrabble clubs.
In addition, “we have volunteers who will accompany someone to the doctor, or come over to change a light bulb or move an air conditioner,” she says. “And if we know a storm is coming, we’ll call our members to make sure they have water, food, medication, and a plan for evacuation, if necessary.”
The Melnicks, who are members of At Home on the Sound, say the program has enhanced their aging-in-place lifestyle. “We’ve made friends and gone on bus trips that would have been impossible for us,” Hyla says. “It’s perfect for people at our age and stage.”