Aging in place: Seniors remodel to meet changing needs and remain in their homes

by lcmremodel

Ten years ago, Louise Machinist, Karen Bush, and Jean McQuillin—all in their 50s—set out on an experiment, deciding to share a house. Friends, but not family or romantically involved, it was a peculiar arrangement for people of their age that they “just stumbled into,” Louise Machinist said.

And it worked out well. The three women found a cozy home in Mt. Lebanon, the front door flanked by griffins. But steep, twisty staircases make the house a hard place to grow old. So the women are moving on.

They are doing so with unusual forethought, two renovating a condominium in Sarasota, Fla.: choosing levers instead of door knobs, push-button lights rather than switches, lower countertops, less slippery tiles, wheelchair-accessible showers, wider-than-usual doorways, grab bars that don’t look like grab bars and installing a Toto toilet (one that Ms. Machinist, 67, made sure “doesn’t look like an old person’s toilet”). The third is hoping to stay in Pittsburgh, searching for another co-householding arrangement.

Their experimentation is part of a growing trend across the United States: seniors increasingly opting to “age in place” rather than move into a full-service retirement community.

“Older folks are doing everything they can to stay in their houses,” said Carnegie Mellon University professor Stefani Danes, who has researched residential environments for the elderly.

In Pittsburgh, this takes a variety of forms: elderly couples and individuals finding ways to stay in neighborhoods across the city by renovating their homes, moving to one-story condominiums and often subscribing to aging services networks.

Longwood at Home, which claims to be one of only 17 “continuing care communities without walls” in the U.S., currently serves roughly 270 people in Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Washington and Westmoreland counties.

The program, run under the umbrella of Presbyterian SeniorCare, aims to “make aging easier,” providing members with the same services they would receive at a typical residential retirement community — just at home. The monthly fee ranges from $300 to $625, and the service is founded on relationships between so-called “care coordinators” and clients. These care coordinators do not serve a “mother hen” role but check in depending on members’ needs, said Grace Smith, a retirement living specialist with the program.

Joe Charny, 86, a retired psychiatrist who subscribes to Longwood at Home, said he enjoys the freedom his Squirrel Hill condominium gives him, including access to a bike trail, restaurants and the library. If, on a whim, one day he decides he wants to fly to Paris, all he has to do is walk out the door and catch a shuttle to the airport — no permission slip required. Residential retirement communities, on the other hand, he said, seem limiting, and conversations there focus on only two things: health and grandchildren.

“Everybody there is the same age, everybody is aging,” he said. “That’s somewhat different from life.”

One difficulty many seniors face is navigating hilly Pittsburgh once they lose the ability to drive.

Port Authority of Allegheny County runs a door-to-door paratransit service for seniors and those with disabilities called ACCESS but priority goes to medical appointments. And for those who can no longer drive, often it’s the peripheral activities that get left behind: things like church and lunch with friends. But these can often be just as important as hospital visits, said Jen Martcheck, a Southwestern Pennsylvania Partners on Aging board member. Isolation has been shown to shorten lives in a way similar to smoking, said Ms. Danes, the CMU professor.

This past spring, a new program of volunteer drivers called AgeWell Rides kicked off in Pittsburgh to supplement the transportation needs of older people. An initiative of the Jewish Family & Children’s Services, the program matches volunteer drivers using their own cars with senior citizens needing rides. So far this has been funded partly with United Way funds.

Another local “community without walls” aimed at providing seniors with transportation and community is Mt. Lebanon Village. For $400 a year ($600 for a couple), approximately 50 seniors are participating in the network, a branch of a national movement first founded in Boston. This provides rides to medical appointments, grocery stores and arranges social activities ranging from museum visits to luncheons. Around 27 volunteer drivers bring participating seniors to appointments weekly, said program coordinator Karen Jones, who manages the schedules in a master Google document.

Though Pittsburgh is often lauded for having affordable housing, appropriate housing is a different beast, Ms. Martcheck said.

Lorraine Roberts, 71, said helping her mother-in-law navigate the 2-inch lip of her front door in a wheelchair was a challenge, prompting her to think about what aging at home would entail.

So, she and her husband, Philip Roberts, 72, spent nearly three years and more money than they were willing to disclose renovating their Fox Chapel home: adding around 1,500 square feet, including an accessible entry and ADA-approved bathroom. Sitting in leather armchairs by a stone fireplace, looking out a two-story bay window at trees rustling in the breeze, they said enrolling in Longwood at Home provided relief and security.

Members are required to complete a physical every year, and care coordinators informally check up on members when they meet. If an emergency were to arise, their three children would not have to worry about logistics, Mr. Roberts said, adding that he was comforted knowing that their 14-year-old dog Hannah would be taken to a kennel.