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posted: 10/4/2013 5:00 AM

Editorial: Prepare now for 'aging in place'

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  • Margaret Fletcher of Des Plaines has a laundry room which was built into her bedroom closet so she does not have to go into the basement.

    Margaret Fletcher of Des Plaines has a laundry room which was built into her bedroom closet so she does not have to go into the basement.
    Daily Herald photo/Joe Lewnard

The Daily Herald Editorial Board

Anyone who lives long enough to face decisions about long-term care inevitably will have to determine the best place to live. While remaining in one's home is the first choice of many seniors, health and mobility challenges often push them into a nursing home or assisted living facility, regardless of what they want.

It doesn't always have to be that way. As part of a growing movement called "aging in place," older residents are finding new ways to stay in the homes and communities where they raised their families and feel the most comfortable.

Sadly for some, however, a lack of planning prevents them from staying put when a crisis hits.

A story this week by Eric Peterson describes a Barrington-based business that works with aging homeowners to adapt their houses to make them manageable for the owners' circumstances. The firm, Angel Guardian, starts with a safety check and then suggests ways to remove barriers to what residents are physically capable of doing safely themselves. The fixes can be as small as adding grab bars and touchless faucets or as involved as installing ramps or moving the laundry to the main floor.

Plenty of homes in the suburbs went up during the postwar building boom, and houses of that era typically have halls and doorways too narrow for wheelchairs, high kitchen cupboards and potentially hazardous bathroom setups. Called them "Peter Pan" houses -- designed for homeowners who will never grow old.

Indeed, some people appear to be in denial about aging. A study this year by the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Chicago shows one-third of older Americans polled don't want to think about aging. And while there is broad concern about being a burden to their families, few of those over 40 have begun planning for long-term care.

The social and financial costs of such inaction will haunt us. By 2030, older Americans, primarily in the boomer generation, will make up nearly one-fifth of the population. With the cost to nursing home residents already at $6,000 a month or more -- much of it paid by federal tax dollars -- we cannot ignore the realities of our graying nation, both as individuals and as a society.

We need urgent discussion on public funding that would encourage aging in place, perhaps by moving more Medicaid dollars to community-based programs. Also included in any planning should be support services such as home health care, safety checks, food programs like Meals on Wheels, access to counselors and transit options for seniors.

The U of C study estimates 70 percent of Americans 65 and over will require an average of three years each of long-term care. Not everyone will be able to age in place, particularly those who outlive good physical or mental health. But there are many who could avoid institutional care by preparing now.

Angel Guardian advises homeowners in their 40s and 50s who are now renovating their homes to consider possible challenges the future may bring. Those who wait for a crisis are likely to find themselves someplace they don't want to be.

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