Essential conversations with Dr. Amy: Retirement living is aging at home

There is a belief that “aging in place,” or remaining in the home that someone has lived in over time, is always the best option. People will even congratulate older adults for staying in their own home, saying, “Good for you, you are still living independently.” If it is a good situation, that is wonderful; but countless times I have seen the downside of remaining in a home that no longer meets someone’s needs.

I have been working with older adults and their families for over 35 years, and I believe that the greatest barrier to maximizing our quality of life as we age is not choosing to live somewhere that matches our life situation. Many people are existing in their homes rather than having a rich, full life. Because of that, I promote, “Aging at Home” instead of “Aging in Place.”

Staying in the home that you have lived in for a long time works under a specific set of circumstances:

  • One or both people are healthy enough to manage the day-to-day household chores, such as cooking and grocery shopping, as well as the bigger maintenance jobs. This doesn’t mean they have to do all of the work, but they have to be able to stay on top of these things and afford help when they can’t do the actual work.
  • There is easy opportunity to see other people and socialize. This may mean continuing to drive and/or having friends nearby who are also healthy enough to get together
  • If there are care needs, there is another healthy family member in the home or very nearby to manage home care. From both personal and professional experience, I can tell you that it can be very difficult to keep someone who has significant care needs in their long-term home if there is no one there to manage care.
  • The environment is safe. Safety might be compromised by mobility issues, cognitive issues, and features of the home, such as steep stairs or a lack of good lighting. It’s true that many homes can be retrofitted to be safer; but in my experience serious safety concerns are often overlooked.

Retirement living is an option that addresses all of those concerns. There is a home-like environment that is safe, provides meals and housekeeping, as well as the opportunity to socialize and have friends right where you live. Easy socialization is one of the best aspects of retirement living. No one should spend their later years isolated and lonely.

Given all the benefits, why don’t more people choose retirement living? One reason is that people may confuse long term care with retirement living. A retirement residence is not a nursing home, yet this confusion has led many people to think retirement living wasn’t safe during the pandemic. Unlike the situation for older adults isolated in their homes, people in retirement residences had staff available if they had a need or an emergency, and fellow residents to stay in touch with in socially distanced ways. In fact, in a survey of residents, 96% felt their Chartwell residence took important measures to keep them safe during COVID-19.

I believe the goal is to “age at home,” with home being defined as somewhere we choose to live that feels safe, nurturing, and allows us to continue to explore life and be engaged with others. Right now, many people may be missing out on the opportunity to call a retirement residence home because of misinformation. The media can unwittingly contribute to this confusion too. For example, they may speak about long term care and retirement residences as if they are the same. That’s why it’s important to get the facts for yourself. You don’t want to let inaccurate information dissuade you from making a decision that can make your life better.

Why do I feel strongly about this? My parents moved into retirement living at my encouragement. Initially, my father was hesitant. Yet about six months after they moved in, I was walking with my dad and he said what I have heard countless people say, “I wish we had moved here sooner. This was the best thing we could have done.”

Remember, retirement living IS aging at home. A home where you can continue to live your best life.

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