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How to Live the Way You Want As You Age

The key to do it is imagining what the hurdles will be

Editor’s note: This article is part of a year-long project about aging well, planning for the changes that aging brings and shaping how society thinks about aging.

Will trouble taking out the trash be what keeps you from living in your own home when you get older?

“I think what would be surprising to people is that it can be relatively small things that can grow pretty quickly into big things” in our older years, says Kathryn Lawler, aging and health resources manager for the Atlanta Regional Commission. She uses trash bins to make her point.

(MORE: Transforming Life as We Age)

Cities often issue bins in just one size, big enough to handle garbage from a household of several people. If you’re an elderly person living alone, you only need a fraction of that capacity, but you still have to drag a big, heavy bin to the curb, maybe down a sloped driveway and then back up it.

Say you just don’t have the strength some weeks, or you’ve enlisted a nearby nephew to do it, but he travels for work and misses a few trash days in a row. “Now you start to get a little rodent problem,” Lawler says. “Then that exacerbates some asthma that you have.” Maybe you land in the hospital.

It’s hard to predict how aging will unfold for any one of us. But another reason it can be hard to plan for old age is that a fit 55-year-old can’t always see the hurdles in the environment that an older, less robust person does.

If your goal is to live at home, as independently as possible for as long as possible, aging professionals recommend something that might seem premature: Start to ask now about the resources and supports available for the elderly in your community. A conversation with the people who run community programs can show you your blind spots.

(MORE: 3 Innovative Ways to Age in Place)

“Reach out early, because we might be able to tell you about all kinds of things that you want to be thinking about or exploring before it becomes a need,” says Laura Trejo, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Aging.

‘A Cascade Of Consequences’

Trejo and Lawler lead two of the 629 Area Agencies on Aging in the country. There’s one in every metro area or cluster of rural counties. Click here for a searchable directory of them. Federally funded, they in turn fund and coordinate the services of local nonprofit and for-profit organizations that provide a huge range of supports for elders: nutrition and fitness programs, transportation, senior centers, help monitoring medications, help doing house work and yard work, and more.

Callers who use these agencies’ one-stop information lines will encounter someone like Mary Lou Vergara, a social worker at the Atlanta Regional Commission who helps elders and caregivers.

Like Lawler, Vergara says it’s not just big changes — the loss of a driver’s license or the loss of memory and cognition — that move people out of their homes. She sees less obvious problems that lead to the risks and vulnerability of isolation. Ultimately, that can take away independence, too.

For instance, “it doesn’t take much for someone’s activity to become very limited,” Vergara says. Fear of falling or even significant knee pain can start a cascade of consequences. “If someone is experiencing a lot of pain walking, they’re less and less interested in going out of their home.” Senior fitness and balance programs can turn that around.

(MORE: An ‘Angie’s List’ for Finding Help to Age in Place)

Mental Health Issues, Too

“Another issue is depression, which often goes undiagnosed,” she adds.

Depression and isolation are what nearly took away the independent life of 86-year-old “Bernice Emory,” an Atlanta-area woman who asked that her real name be kept private. After her husband and sister died within a couple months of each other in 2009, she shut down. “My children were concerned,” she says, and asked her to see counselor.

That led to therapy, but also a referral to the Crabapple Senior Center, where Emory has spent every weekday for the past four years.

“I fell in love with the place,” she says. The friendships, creative activities, speakers, meals together and chance to be useful by helping in the kitchen gave her a reason to get up and get dressed in the morning.

A fiftysomething still in the thick of a career, a family life and a far-flung social network might not see that losing friends and sense of purpose are hazards of aging. But Emory can say that regaining them through the senior center “made me come alive.”

Denise Logeland is a longtime business writer and editor whose beats have included the health care industry and financing for medical technology start-ups.

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