I read an article recently from PBS Newshour entitled “How to Stay Out of a Nursing Home and Age Independently.” It discusses a recent study out of Sweden that identified several factors that predicted a senior’s likelihood of living independently into their 80s. Some may call this “aging independently.”
The study’s lead author, geriatrician Kristin Franzon, noted, “Preserved independence is highly valued by very old individuals,” so she and her team were examining if there are quantifiable actions people can take to increase their odds of staying in their own home or if needing assistance was an inevitability of aging. It is no real surprise that among the predictors Franzon and her team correlated to living independently for longer were an active lifestyle, not smoking, and adhering to a Mediterranean-like diet.
There’s little doubt that a healthy overall lifestyle ups your odds of staying in good health for longer, and as a result, may lower the likelihood that you will need assistance as you age. But this Newshour article got me thinking about several points related to seniors’ frequently voiced desire to “age independently” and stay in their home.
An inaccurate label
I have often quoted the AARP statistic that roughly 90 percent of seniors say they want to stay in their own home as they age. There is a notion that living at home equals independence, and conversely, living in a retirement community (such as a continuing care retirement community [CCRC], also called a life plan community) translates into losing your independence. For many seniors, so-called “aging independently” at home (sometime referred to as “aging in place”) is perceived to be the most comfortable, convenient, and economical option.
But I believe that the term “age independently” is a huge misnomer. Just because someone lives in their existing home does not mean they are or will continue to be independent. Where one lives does not define or determine whether they are independent or not; a person may be dependent regardless of the setting.
As an example, a senior who opts to stay in their home may start off living truly independently, requiring zero assistance with the activities of daily living (ADLs) like food preparation, bathing, or dressing. And that may remain the case indefinitely.
Or it may not.
Should their health decline, that person may require more and more assistance or may develop increasingly complex care needs. Who will take on these tasks? Will an adult child or other family member be willing and able to serve as caregiver, offering their time and energy? Or will the family locate and hire an in-home caregiver such as a home health worker or nursing aide? How much does that cost, anyway? Will the senior need to make modifications to their home in order to accommodate a wheelchair or other assistive devices? These are among the questions that need to be discussed with the family if a senior is considering staying in their home for the long haul. But these factors also beg the question: At what point is “living independently” not really living independently?
Simultaneously, as a person’s age-related health and/or mobility decline, or if and when they lose their spouse or long-time friends, it is more common for seniors to become socially isolated when living “independently” in their own home. In fact, this epidemic of senior loneliness, impacting as many as 8 million people in our country, has been termed a “silent killer” by a recent Congressional report, a serious issue that can contribute to a premature death.
Staying in the home may have advantages when it comes to familiarity, and in some cases, it may be less expensive than other senior living options…but as you can see, there are also potential drawbacks.
Aging independently, with assistance
So, what about life in a CCRC or other retirement community? Some people feel that by acquiescing to a move into a CCRC, it is like giving up and accepting that you’re an “old person”—surrendering your independence at the door. In today’s world where people are living well into their 80s and beyond, many seniors remain active much longer than their own parents did. They often don’t feel like they are “old”…why would they ever consider moving into an “old folks home”?
CCRCs and other senior living communities aren’t the right choice for everyone, whether the senior doesn’t feel that they would enjoy living in a community setting with other seniors, has financial obstacles to paying the hefty CCRC entry fee, or has strong feelings about not wanting to sacrifice the perceived independence of staying in their long-time home. But on the last point, I would counter that CCRCs actually enable seniors to live independently for longer.
Here’s why: CCRCs and other types of retirement communities offer their residents all of the amenities and services needed to allow seniors to care for themselves for as long as possible. But when it comes to CCRCs, they also provide residents with what’s referred to as a continuum of care—the increasing levels of healthcare services that a person may need as they age. Most new residents move into the independent living area of the community, but if any health issues arise, they will be provided assistance with activities of daily living all the way up to skilled nursing care—all within one community.
Thanks in part to the availability of this continuum of care, CCRCs alleviate the stress that comes with caregiving for an aging family member, granting seniors and their adult children the freedom to simply enjoy their visits together, making it meaningful, quality time. To me, these two factors encompass the true definition of “aging independently.”
Taking charge of your future
No matter your age, there’s nothing wrong with accepting a little help if it becomes needed. And CCRCs offer their residents whatever level of assistance they may require for their unique needs…whether that means housekeeping services, a little help with bathing and dressing, or eventually, full-time nursing care in the healthcare center if needed.
I encourage people to consider all of the possibilities when it comes to their senior living options. You may just discover that a CCRC offers you the kind of independence that you can live with!
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