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Aging and Your Home: The Coping Quotient

An architect on how people view their homes as they get older


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(This article originally appeared on Duo Dickinson’s Saved By Design blog.)

Like it or not, we are all aging. For the first 20 years, it’s a growth experience. The next 40, its a performance ethic. From then on, for almost all of us, our lives have a coping quotient.

The jog that was once made without thought now has a partner: Ibuprophen. Getting out of a chair or bed has an electric freeze and wince in pain. As menopause ebbs and the mating imperative needs less expression, our bodies seem to be based less on sex and more on safety.

Longevity is a blessing — and a threat. Our deepest fear has shifted from being unloved into being mortally afraid of becoming the Walking Dead: physically functional, but mentally returned to a state of infancy. It’s a rational fear, that, because we are human, has an irrational level of compensations and expectations.

I am dealing with all of these fears, copings and compensations as an architect. But after 35 years of serving Greatest Generation and boomer clients, I’ve begun to sense an arc or accommodation that is only partially architectural.

After 35 years of serving Greatest Generation and boomer clients, I’ve begun to sense an arc that is only partially architectural.

Although woefully reductionist, here are the groupings of coping as I am experiencing them:

1. Crisis Management/Triage/Brinksmanship

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” has been the traditional mantra I’ve heard from most of Greatest Generation seniors, a group who is ebbing and who expected death to be closer to 70 than 80.

For them, mid-century medicine has often meant a toggle-switched “OFF” to the “ON” of pre-“old age” status: Reliance on hospitals, the safe harbor of relatives or simply dropping dead meant long-term accommodation of future disability was time and money spent for a narrow window of living in the pre-decrepitude state.

Fewer and fewer boomers, however, have the same cavalier attitude about giving up autonomy in a world where preventative medicine and interventionist therapies have pushed life expectancies to 80 and beyond; where “spry elderly” are a growing demographic; where a little exercise and self-control has meant the quality of life expectation has soared in the last decade and where aging in place has become a certifiable trend.

2. Preparing For the Worst (Only)

Living in an ever-reducing footprint within the McMansion or 4- bedroom condo while doing little else except readying the downstairs den for a possible bed or asking a contractor if a shower can be added to the powder room seems reasonable if your cash is crunched, resale means owing a bank money or you just have “better” things to do.

Light research on what would be needed if a hip is broken or a ventricle ceases to pump is not so much for planning as it is for perspective. “If” is not “when,” but it’s also a notch above “I will worry about it when something happens.”

3. Due Diligence/Active Anticipation

Most people that contact architects and contractors fall into this group. They have cared for, or buried, their parents and have friends or relatives whose lives were turned upside down by the debilitation of loved ones. The consequences have offered them stark lessons.

The able-bodied boomers search through all the options: Sometimes selling at a paper loss the family home that helped rear the kids can provide decades of reduced utility and maintenance costs and avoid expensive accommodations. Creating one-story living can be impossible in certain homes on certain sites. Building new can be prohibitively expensive.

Leaving the neighbors and patterns of a lifetime may just be too emotionally costly, though, so many, if not most diligent, able-bodied but ego-projecting boomers want maximum control even if they are staying put.

They master-plan, strategically implement and value-engineer their funding to get immediate needs taken care of. They also plan, and often make accommodations, for potential aging issues. Pathways for ramps, space to shower, ease of storage, cooking while sitting and light (natural and artificial) that’s useful for fading vision are all part of a balancing act of time, money and focus.

4. Overthinking

For some, spending 30K to put in an elevator might not make sense if they’re running 10Ks. Or it could be an extreme decision to move to a sad condo just because mowing the lawn is a scary thought. But channeling an irrational fear of losing control needs to be quelled if you want to have a happy life.

Realistic spending today can net long-term future savings: If you just can’t see spending 20 percent of your fixed income on heat or cooling, adding foam insulation to your home might be a good idea. Fear of slipping in the shower one day may just mean that the grab bars come now, not later. Getting out of the weather and into your home for the point when you’ll move quite a bit slower than you once did may mean a new entry rooflet or a garage addition.

Coping As a Positive Outcome

Sometimes, just finding out that fears can be answered with facts ends the worst fears.

It’s a very strange place to be longing to live long enough so that coping is a positive outcome. Everyone of us is still, somewhere, 16 and even through the thickest lens, the rest of the world looks and sounds just like it did 50 years ago.

But we are changing, 24/7/365. All of us.

The questions for boomers are not the same for our children or for our surviving parents. But there are, for every generation, deep, abiding, disquieting questions. And it never hurts to ask for help.

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