Where do you want to live when you're old?

I read the back of cereal boxes, those little flyers that get stuck in your door when you're out of town and the random postings on bulletin boards outside grocery stores. I found the topic for this column by reading an article in a stray newspaper at the airport.

Maybe I could say, "I read it so you don't have to."

That said, please read this. It's about assuring everyday, at-home satisfaction in your final decade.

First, a question.

Where do you want to live when you're 85-plus? I suspect most people will respond by saying, "I want to live independently; ideally in my own house like I do now." That's how I would respond.

My husband and I recently decided to bring that question closer to home. We called in an accessibility expert to help us evaluate whether our home would be completely livable if we became wheelchair users or were temporarily bed-bound. We have accepted the fact that we will eventually get old and maybe even have some incapacitating health problem. A lot of folks our age are slow to accept that could happen. (I have friends — I know these things.)

Me, I like to embrace aging. "Old" looks farther away the closer I get to it — but when it does come near, I want to be ready.

Enter the concept of "universal design," which means that living environments are physically accessible to people regardless of age or abilities. These approaches are "compelling and seamless to the design of the home." I got that last phrase from reading the newspaper article mentioned earlier (March 14, Sunday Oregonian). "As life expectancy rises and modern medicine has increased the survival rate, there is a growing interest in universal design." (I got that from a Wikipedia definition www.wikipedia.com.)

Get this, if you want to stay in your current home until the end of your years, you may need to initiate structural changes. At first glance the price tag seems high. When you calculate cost avoidance, not so much. A $10,000 bathroom remodel you didn't think you needed can start looking like a real deal.

Think about it this way. Met Life Foundation (www.metlife.org) regularly looks at the cost of long-term care and found the average cost of a private room in a nursing home is $80,000 per year and rising. Assisted living situations average $40,000 a year. Aging adults may end up moving to these environments solely because they lack an accessible downstairs bathroom — or have stairs that are hard to navigate or cupboards that are too high. Sure, modifying your home requires an investment. But you can calculate the cost-benefit fairly easily. And when you throw in the likelihood that modifications in the direction of universal design will make your house more marketable, remodeling decisions are a whole lot easier.

We started our reality check with the future by consulting a professional geriatric-care manager. We chose Ellen Waldman (www.SeniorOptionsAshland.com), and she led us to the local universal design/accessibility experts. I thought I knew some things about this business of "aging in place," but these folks know more.

Ever older. Always learning.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu or call 776-7371, Ext. 210.

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