In 1982, The Clash's famous song "Should I Stay or Should I Go" was about a rocky romance. Now, the coronavirus has baby boomers and their aging parents asking the same question about senior housing: Do I stay in my own house as I grow older, known as "aging in place," or go to a senior living community? And if I stay, what COVID-19 precautions should I take?
The social distancing and prolonged stay-at-home orders that have accompanied the pandemic have revealed both the benefits and challenges of living on our own, possibly prompting new interest in senior living communities. However, the staggering mortality rate due to COVID-19 in nursing homes and assisted living has also ramped up interest in aging in place. The coronavirus is prompting us to think, perhaps more than ever before, about where and how we want to live.
Aging in Place Will Increase
Our country is getting grayer. The oldest of the 73 million "Born to Be Wild" boomer generation turns 74 this year. Better medicine and a more active lifestyle have led to increased longevity, which means seniors will be living on their own for longer periods.
Consider these figures: By 2030, all baby boomers will be at least age 65, and by 2060, the number of Americans ages 65 and older is expected to more than double to 98 million, up from 46 million in 2014, according to the Population Reference Bureau.
Older adults have always preferred living at home over moving to long-term care facilities. A 2018 AARP survey found that 3 out of 4 Americans age 50 and older want to live independently. What's new is that now they have to worry about taking COVID-19 precautions.
Of course, home isn't right for everyone. A care facility may be a better choice for people with dementia or serious medical needs. Others like congregate housing, such as a life plan community (typically consisting of independent, assisted living and skilled nursing sections) with tiered care. In today's climate, possible residents will likely feel more reassured once they've heard about the precautions against COVID-19 that these places are taking.
Consider Your Different Options
Living in a planned community lets you keep your independence but still live with others. For example, active adult communities are for people age 55 and older. The largest is The Villages in Sumter County, Florida, which has 36 golf courses, 100 restaurants and 3,000 social clubs. Other community concepts include:
- Co-housing: Residents own or rent small homes that are built around a "common house" or gathering spot where people can share meals if they so choose. The community owns the common house and property, and they share expenses and chores, making co-housing an affordable choice for many. Most are intergenerational, with a few for people 50+.
- Shared housing: In this situation, two or more people live together and split expenses. They can be friends or strangers, living in someone's home or getting a new place entirely. The homeowner gets both income and company.
- The village model: People who are at least age 50 join a "village," where volunteers or paid staff help with rides, organize events and vet service providers like a dog walker or plumber. The yearly fee for an individual or a household ranges from zero to several hundred dollars.
Success Strategies for Living at Home
If you've decided living in a planned community isn't for you, aging in place can come with unique challenges, particularly in the age of COVID-19. Here are a few ways to mitigate some of the most common issues that people experience.
Loneliness and Social Isolation
A pandemic reveals the true impact of loneliness and social isolation. Even before the crisis, a 2020 government report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) found that more than 1 in 3 Americans ages 45 and older feel lonely, while almost one-quarter of respondents ages 65 and older are socially isolated. The study also noted that loneliness and social isolation have been linked to depression, anxiety, heart disease, stroke and other health issues.
Nurturing current friendships (if you can't get out, there's Zoom, FaceTime and Skype) and meeting new people is important. In later life, friends may move, be busy with family or have health issues, and networks often shrink. Feeling socially connected is necessary to stave off other problems.
Check the activity calendar at a spot near you, such as your senior center, church or town hall. Volunteering can provide purpose and friends, sometimes from different generations than your own.
Plan for Home Safety
The pandemic has given us ample time to get to know our homes, and now you should look at it with an eye to the future. The steps to the upstairs bedroom may not be so steep now, but how about when you're older? What about reaching the kitchen cabinets? Is it realistic to stay where you are?
A professional can evaluate your house for safety — this is called an aging-in-place house assessment. The person who does it can be an occupational therapist, architect, interior designer, contractor, remodeler or a certified aging-in-place specialist (CAPS).
They'll look for tripping hazards, poor lighting and areas that could be hard to navigate (e.g., narrow doorways, bathtubs or stairs) and make recommendations. The recommendations could be simply installing grab bars or moving wires on the floor, or for more major work.
The Advantages of Technology
Since COVID-19, many of us have gotten a crash course in technology, and if you're considering aging in place, it's worth looking even further into what technology could help you and your loved ones feel more secure.
Safety technology includes mobile gadgets that are worn on the neck or wrist and can be used if someone needs help: fall detection; medication management apps; sensors placed on regularly used objects around the house such as a refrigerator door or bed that alert family members if something seems amiss; and GPS geofencing, through which loved ones can be notified if a parent with dementia wanders outside a perimeter.
In addition, smart homes will get smarter. You can already remotely control appliances and lights, which is a godsend for those with mobility issues.
Meanwhile, telemedicine, which transmits medical data from a patient at home to doctors, is still evolving, and artificial intelligence, predictive analytics (looking at behavior or data to catch a problem before it happens), virtual reality and companion robots are in their infancy.
Technology continues to evolve, and new products will only make aging in place easier and more comfortable as they're released. Learn how to use the tools that are available today so you'll be up to speed with the latest tech and will be able to learn quickly when even better advances come out.
Aging in Place After COVID-19
It's too soon to know how the pandemic will impact growing old at home, but one thing is certain: Preparation will be key.
What's important to think about now is what you want from life during the next few years. Is there a plan if you can no longer drive? Do you have a strong support system? What kind of care do you envision needing? Do you have enough money? You should also think about what's not in your life right now that you'd like to add — perhaps more friends, volunteering or a new hobby.
For some, group living can be a good fit, but if you've decided that aging in place is the right choice for you and have made the proper preparations, it can be a rewarding next phase of your life.