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Outside the Box: Aging in place can be a nightmare if you’re not properly prepared

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.

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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.

Read: Aging in place can be cost-effective, but requires good financial planning

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 stair lift 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.

Read: 90% of people want to grow old in their own home — what’s the real cost of doing so?

Her illness was five years after my father died, and we had removed the stair lift. 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.

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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.

This column first appeared on Humble Dollar, it has been republished with permission.

Richard Connor is a semiretired 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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