- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 16, 2010

Though AARP encourages people to join at age 50, “senior” most often is used to identify people 65 and older. Seniors, whether they continue to work or have the ability to retire, are at an age when they need to decide whether to stay in their current home as they grow older or to move, either into an active-adult community or simply to a different home that will meet their changing needs.

A 2010 AARP survey of adults age 45 and older showed that approximately 75 percent of respondents want to stay in their home as they age. The primary motivator for aging in place rather than moving, for most of the respondents, is the desire to remain in their community near friends and family.

“The decision to move or to age in place has several components,” says Todd Harff, president of Creating Results in Woodbridge, Va., and a co-founder of the International Mature Marketing Network. “The house itself is just one part of the equation, although it is important to consider how well the home functions in terms of easy access and maintenance. But in addition to the physical aspect of the home, it is important to consider the social aspect of people’s lives in terms of their health and their spirits.”

Mr. Harff says some homeowners are best served by staying in place because they have a support network and plenty of opportunities for social interaction but that sometimes neighborhoods change over time and individuals become isolated.

“Moving to a new community where everyone else is new and eager to establish new connections can be healthy for people, especially if there are opportunities for healthy eating, exercise and learning,” Mr. Harff says.

Determining whether to move or stay requires an overall evaluation of the senior’s home along with other issues, which vary according to the age and health of the homeowner.

“It is important to make the distinction between younger seniors, who are now 65 to 80, versus older seniors, who are 80 to 100,” says Robert Kramer, president of the National Investment Center for the Seniors Housing and Care Industry. “People in their early senior years are still thinking of doing other things, such as volunteering or teaching or taking on a new career, while older seniors are more likely to be completely retired. For younger seniors, aging in place may be more easily accomplished than for older seniors.”

Mr. Kramer says seniors need to look realistically at the cost of moving versus the cost of staying in their home and retrofitting it to meet their needs.

“One important aspect of choosing to stay in the home is mobility,” Mr. Kramer says. “Most people don’t want to think about the possibility of being in a wheelchair, but they need to at least think about their potential loss of mobility. Stairs can be an impediment for a lot of seniors.”

The National Aging in Place Council has a list of areas to assess in a home to determine whether retrofitting a home for aging is possible. For example, check to see that the home’s entrance is barrier-free, preferably without steps or thresholds that can cause an accident or make entering the home on crutches or in a wheelchair difficult. Other areas that may need to be remodeled include a bathroom, to allow for a step-in tub or a roll-in shower; the kitchen, to install a raised dishwasher or varied counter heights; and lighting everywhere to help prevent accidents.

“There is a whole industry of companies that can help people remodel their homes to age in place, but it is important to recognize that it may not be worthwhile to spend the money to renovate a home since the costs are unlikely to be recouped when it is time to sell the home,” Mr. Harff says. “Even adding a new kitchen to a home does not bring in a 100 percent return on investment, and aging-in-place renovations are less likely to add value to a home.”

Mr. Harff says seniors also should consider the cost and occasional stress of dealing with contractors to maintain the exterior of the property and take care of jobs that the owners may be less physically able to handle.

“Even though the finances and physical side of deciding to move or stay are important, the decision is primarily an emotional one for most people,” Mr. Harff says. “The decision is also more health-dependent than age-dependent. Sometimes people choose to move into an active-adult community when they are younger because they are already having difficulty handling stairs or exterior maintenance projects, and sometimes older people choose to stay because of their social network and simply find ways to manage physical issues.”

Mr. Kramer also says the social network of friends, family and neighbors is an important driver in the decision to age in place.

“For people in their eighties or older, their social network may have moved away or died, leaving them isolated,” Mr. Kramer says. “Another important consideration is transportation, particularly for people who no longer drive. Consider whether safe public transportation is available nearby or not.”

Mr. Kramer says some people resist moving into an active-adult or retirement community because of the cost of moving and the fees associated with those communities.

“People should be careful to add up not only the costs of improving their home to meet their needs, but also the costs of extra services to maintain the home or to give them added mobility,” Mr. Kramer says. “Add up the cost of getting the grass cut, having snow shoveled, taking taxis to the doctor’s office, an emergency call service and getting groceries or meals delivered, along with property taxes, homeowners association fees and utilities, most of which are covered by the fees in a retirement community.”

Mr. Kramer points out that studies have shown that one of the keys to longevity is socialization and personal contact, along with managing physical health through exercise and nutrition.

An alternative to moving into an active-adult or retirement community is to join a community village - an organization that links seniors and other neighbors together to provide assistance and social opportunities for each other. The first of these groups, Beacon Hill Village in Boston, began in 2001.

Villages vary in how they are organized, with some run entirely by volunteers and others with an executive director. Membership costs vary along with the number of members and the services and activities provided. Multiple villages are operating in the District and its suburbs, including groups on Capitol Hill and in Dupont Circle, Chevy Chase and the Palisades.

As an example, the Northwest Neighbors Village (www.nwnv.org), opened in May 2009 to provide assistance and activities for members who live in the Chevy Chase area of Northwest Washington. Frances Mahncke, board president of the Northwest Neighbors Village (NWNV), says her group has 67 members and 32 associate members plus approximately 60 volunteers.

“It took us about two or three years to get the organization started and to raise the money to hire an executive director,” Mrs. Mahncke says. “We received a $15,000 grant from the D.C. Council, which helped us raise money, too.

“We have someone in the office to take calls from members who need assistance and recommendations for service people, and more volunteers who take people to doctor appointments and grocery shopping. We have volunteers who help people with their electronics, too, such as hooking up their computer or helping with small technical problems. Our volunteers will do small handyman chores, too, such as flipping a mattress or changing the smoke-detector batteries, things that can be difficult for elderly people.”

NWNV screens and insures all volunteers so members can be comfortable having them in their home. The group also screen all contractors or professional service people before making a recommendation, then follows up after each appointment to be sure the member’s needs were met.

“We not only offer referrals for people, but our volunteers will sit in with the members and take notes, if they want, in order to make sure everything is being done correctly,” Mrs. Mahncke says. “Our volunteers are trained so they can do a safety walk-through of a home and make any necessary recommendations to improve the property.”

Membership in NWNV costs $750 annually per couple and $500 for a single person, with a reduced rate for associate members who receive a newsletter and participate in the group’s social events.

“The group offers a social outlet for members since we plan parties and introduce people with similar interests to each other,” Mrs. Mahncke says. “The newsletter is hand-delivered so that we have a way of checking in on people to see how they are doing.

“We work closely with other organizations … in case we feel people need more help than we can offer, and can make referrals for private companies that offer daily living care. We get about 750 calls each year from members so far, and the majority are for transportation assistance to appointments or a bank or grocery store.”

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