A Perfect House

Thank you to everyone for the heartfelt messages.  Having an international community of support is priceless.  My heart goes out to those of you who have experienced or are experiencing similar situations.  I learned a lot from this move, not the least of which is to follow my own advice to live in the moment.

When our South Carolina house went under contract, we left for Michigan on a sweltering July day with the objective of buying another house.  Since Martin doesn’t drive anymore, the nearly 800 miles behind the wheel was left to me.  Many asked why we didn’t fly.  Martin doesn’t fly anymore either.  Airports are noisy.  Jets are cramped.  Even with the no check-in line, getting through security is a challenge for me alone.  For someone who must be spoken to slowly, succinctly without a surrounding cacophony just getting to the plane is a major stress.  I split the drive into two days with a stopover in Lexington, Kentucky at our favorite Man O’War Boulevard hotel.  Still, it was exhausting, for both of us.  It is what it is.

The closing on our SC house was scheduled for August 28 so time was of the essence.  On the advice of Martin’s neurologist I was working to take Martin from one house to the other with scarcely any stops in between.  Getting him settled into a new environment with as few adjustments as possible was imperative for his well-being and mine.

With the idea of downsizing both in house and land, we arrived with a handful of properties to view.  Houses in Michigan are most often built on basements, many with finished walk-out basements.  I knew there would be stairs.  With that in mind, I pursued only ranch styles to keep it to one set.  After all, I wanted a house where we could age in place.  We had a lot of advantages in our quest, from human help to technological help — the internet, smart phones and GPS; our Realtor, Faith, appropriately named for this adventure, is my daughter, Rachel’s, niece by marriage.  I felt confident there was a house for us among the ones identified.

However, none of the houses “spoke” to us.  Martin was especially discouraged.  After two days of intent looking, I found myself sitting on the sofa in Rachel’s sunroom at 4 a.m.  Our search was taking us further and further from her address.  There wasn’t a point of moving to Michigan if we were an hour away from help.  

During this introspection, an epiphany – instead of buying for the present, I was buying for a future I didn’t even know if we would have.  I had an idea where Martin’s disease would take us, but how many years away was that?  In 2018 his neurologist told us it was moving at a glacial pace.  It could be ten or even twenty years.  We are still in good physical health.  Martin bicycles 80 to a 100 miles a week at 21 miles per hour!  He can certainly climb stairs.  I needed to consider two story houses, two sets of stairs for the moment we were in, not the future yet to come. 

Later that morning as Faith drove us to look at more properties, I mentioned my thoughts to her.  We were minutes from Rachel’s house when she pointed to the right and said, “If you’re considering two stories, there’s a beautiful house behind all those trees.”   After pulling up the listing on my phone, scrolling through photos and showing Martin, I told Faith we wanted to see the house.

It isn’t a style I would have thought about purchasing.  This wasn’t downsizing; it’s nearly 3,700 square feet.  Definitely not the smaller piece of land I searched for, it sits on fifteen acres with a small pond and a slice of frontage along a small lake.  

As I stood in the huge kitchen that day, I caught a glimpse of Martin disappearing down one of the many paths through the woods.  I quickly asked Faith to go after him so I could look around some more.  I watched as her 6’2” frame vanished down the path after Martin.  With her spring green dress and long flowing blond curls, I felt like I was watching Alice chasing the White Rabbit.  I hoped we weren’t about to go down the rabbit hole.  Upon their return I put my doubts aside.  Martin was all smiles.  “Better, better, better” his way of saying this is the one.

There were other two stories, but this is the one.  This is the house for this moment in our lives.  We will grow old.  We will have health issues.  We will die.  All the advice, including mine, about having a house for aging in place deprives us of living in the present, the here and now, the joy of the moment.

This is the house with the family sized kitchen for cooking and gathering, dedicated spaces for the art studio, indoors bicycling when the snow flies, a writing room for me, the house in a private setting with deer, turkey, squirrels and chipmunks, the house with room for bird feeding stations, the house about a mile from a good riding route for Martin, the house with beautiful gardens to tend in good weather and add winter interest, the house with the dining room big enough for our family to enjoy Sunday dinners and the house close enough for help to arrive in minutes.  This is the perfect house for this moment.

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Should Your Kids Take Care Of You?

Last week I contacted my attorney’s firm to make an appointment with him to review our wills. He was no longer with the firm. He gave up his practice and moved cross-country to help his aging parents. What a good son we would all say. And, boy oh boy, is he! He now gets to start over building a legal practice after he passes the bar in another state. Perhaps there is more to the story than what is readily apparent.

But, this reminded me of another day when I sat at lunch with two friends — two childless friends. Somehow the subject of assisted living came up. To my surprise, as we discussed the concept, my lunch mates mentioned how they would be living in such a community one day.

“I plan on aging in place.” I chirped. “Hopefully, I won’t ever go to any type of assisted living.”

Almost simultaneously they both turned to me and said, “Well, of course you won’t. You have children to take care of you.”

Huh? What? Their expectation that my children would care for me was equally surprising. I certainly didn’t have that expectation. My children are my family, part of my emotional support system, but I didn’t have them so they could take care of me in old age.

The primary reason for my planning for independence is my children. I’d like for them to live unfettered with my care. They have their own lives, spouses, children and now, my oldest daughter, has her very first grandchild. Taking care of myself is the best gift I can give them.

That doesn’t mean I won’t be involved in their lives. It means I do everything in my power to remain independent physically, mentally and financially. Contrary to my friends’ assumptions, people with children are no different, than those of us without children. Expecting a child to care for you in old age is expecting them to give up a part of their independence for you.

I grew up knowing a woman who did not have a career, marry or have friends of her own as she spent much of her adult life caring for her parents and a niece who lived with them. Even as a child, I could see she was unhappy with her life. All the neighborhood kids called her “Aunt Ann”.  Even that didn’t bring a smile to her face. Eventually, the niece grew up and moved out. The woman’s father and then her mother passed away. People asked her what she would do now. Unfortunately, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and died before she could answer that question. I’m sure this childhood experience colored my view of remaining independent.

We, as parents, should never expect our kids to resign from their lives to care for us. It is up to us to care for us. We owe it to our children to stay physically active, to eat a healthy diet, to pursue our passions, to stay mentally sharp, to develop a community of friends of our own, to stay spiritually true to ourselves. And, if necessary, live in an assisted living community.  That is the best legacy we can leave them.

AGING IN PLACE

In recent months I’ve been contacted by a few assisted living communities asking me for an endorsement. As those of you who follow my blog probably already know, I intend to age in place. Aging in place means you age in your home with some support services, not an assisted living or nursing home community. This is a growing movement, especially among baby boomers like myself. I like having control over what I’m doing in life. The idea of giving up control to an institutionalized home environment run by a staff with rules and policies to be followed is not my idea of independent living. While it’s not always possible to stay independent to a degree and these facilities serve a real need, they are also expensive. One family seeking assisted living for a relative recently told me about a community, which cost $10,000 per month! How many people have $120,000 a year to spend on housing and care for the rest of their lives? I think very few can afford that kind of money. Since assisted living and nursing home communities have experienced a decline in population over the last ten years and baby boomers, true to form, want to stay as independent for as long as possible, I think it’s a good bet the decline may continue. The question then becomes, “What must we do to successfully age in place?”.

The first requisite is good health. If you take care of your body when you’re young, your body will take care of you as you age. Good health is the number one reason I recently lost some pounds – 18 at last count. I’ve reached my goal, satisfied my doctor and feel more optimistic about my ability to age in place. Weight isn’t the only issue, however. Good health covers a lot of territory. Being healthy physically, mentally and emotionally means more than popping a multivitamin and eating a healthy diet. Both your body and mind must stay agile. Remember neuroplasticity? If we are to age in place, we must have the mental capacity to know when to do what as well as the physical acuity to perform routine activities and avoid falls. Keep moving! Both body and mind. And, monitor your health along with your physician. Being proactive about your health is the best preventive measure you can take. On the emotional end of the good health spectrum, we must be engaged with people. People who age successfully no matter where they live, have close ties to other human beings. They feel a sense of community. They cultivate relationships with family and friends. This may become more of a challenge as we age. It’s a fact of life that eventually we all die. As we lose friends or family, it becomes important to watch ourselves for depression. It becomes even more important to continue the deep relationships that remain as well as take part in community activities to find new friends, young and old.

Most aging in place articles I’ve read are centered upon the home environment. Staying in the home we’ve lived in is a source of security, a feeling of independence and control as we age. That’s the number one reason to stay in your home. However, the home must accommodate our physical needs in such a way as to offer a safe haven. This is the second requisite for aging in place. If you are living in a large home with stairs, all bedrooms on the second floor, a huge yard to keep up, a basement level or stairs just to enter the house, you need to assess whether aging in this particular place is possible for you. When Martin and I built our house eleven years ago, it was built with the idea of aging in place. Never having owned a really large home anyway, this one is just a tad bit larger than the average American home of 2,000 square feet. The floor plan is an open one story so if wheel chair or walker become necessary, we can negotiate the rooms without any problem. With the exception of the two secondary bedrooms, the flooring is either hardwood or tile. The one area rug can easily be removed to prevent tripping as we age. There is no tub in the master bath – only a large walk-in shower with a seat. We tried to think about what it would be like to age in this house. As you can see, with some planning, even an existing house can be retrofitted to accommodate your needs for aging in place. I know realistically we will need to hire someone to do the yard work around the house. Just as we will eventually need someone to clean inside, do laundry and maybe cook some meals.

That brings me to the third requisite for aging in place. Services. We’ll need in home help. In the last 50 years, we’ve done a better job at providing community and government resources to support the care of our aging population. With the sheer numbers increasing due to the aging of baby boomers, those support systems will likely be strained. I believe technology and good old-fashioned ingenuity will help fill that gap. I also believe as health care improves so will our chances of remaining independent longer. We are currently seeing the advent of cars, which drive themselves. What a boon to an aging population not willing to relinquish their independence, car keys or driver’s license. We already have improved home security services with speakers in the ceiling and remote emergency buttons. APPS listing and connecting us to resources in the community already exist and are sure to increase and improve. Companies now in the business of offering home care will find new, improved ways of meeting the need. And, new companies will be created. This is an opportunity in many ways.

Aging in place has a lot of parts to it and is not a one size fits all. It requires a lot of thought and planning. You, and only you, know how you want to age and what fits with your individual needs. What I’ve shared with you here is just the basics as I see them. If you haven’t thought about it, now is the time to think about it and make any necessary changes to your lifestyle. Taking a proactive approach now and preparing for the future will allow you to age in place on your terms.