The term "aging in place" refers to the millions of seniors who would rather remain in their longtime homes than pull up stakes and move -- whether to a warmer climate or closer to their children. And certainly no one wants to go into a nursing home, some of which are more like storage boxes where people wait to die than actual homes.
To most people, aging in place means mostly that they'll have to modify their homes in some fashion so their remaining years will be comfortable. Perhaps a ramp to accommodate a wheelchair, or turning that little-used dining room into a first-floor master bedroom to avoid climbing stairs. Or maybe it simply involves changing the doorknobs to handles so they'll be easier to use.
These are all real estate-related functions, and can usually be accomplished by licensed remodeling contractors or possibly even a local handyman. But as seniors age in their homes, they often realize that they need assistance beyond reconfiguring their houses: with things like transportation, maintenance, health care, cooking and financial resources.
Enter the National Aging in Place Council (NAICP), an alliance of in-home aging services providers that run the gamut from builders, lenders and businesses to senior organizations and government agencies. Presently, there are 25 NAIPC chapters nationally, but the group is expanding rapidly, says Executive Director Marty Bell.
The council's growth coincides with a report this month from the Government Accountability Office that calls on the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to do more to connect senior residents to supportive services. The report refers specifically to HUD's Section 202 "housing for the elderly" program. But the need goes well beyond that, says Peter Bell, Marty's younger brother and a longtime association executive who operates several trade groups, including NAIPC.
Surprisingly, the NAICP was created as an offshoot of the reverse mortgage business, another trade organization that the Bells manage. Reverse mortgages are loans that allow seniors to cash out the equity they have in their homes. They can use that money to make modifications to their houses, pay their bills and otherwise live comfortably as they age.
But for one reason or another, many elderly people, after taking years to pay off their first mortgages, don't want to encumber their houses once again. Maybe they want to leave their homes mortgage-free to their kids. Perhaps they don't have enough equity to make a reverse mortgage worthwhile, or maybe they simply can't qualify.
There's nothing wrong with shunning another loan. But if you want to live independently in your home for your remaining years, you have to plan for it.
"If you don't plan, you are going to run into trouble," says Peter Bell. "It's one thing to live on your own in your 70s, but another thing in your 80s and something else again in your 90s."
Unfortunately, that's the exact opposite of the way most of us operate. "We have a habit as a society of waiting for an emergency before we take action," says Marty Bell.
NAIPC's goal is to be a one-stop shop in every community where seniors and their loved ones can easily find the assistance they need -- from the local version of Meals on Wheels to geriatric medical care. In Charleston, South Carolina, and Atlanta, for example, the local chapters list more than 50 different in-home services local residents can access. Resources can be found at ageinplace.org.
All members of local chapters are vetted and screened to make sure they are legitimate. They agree to background checks, are interviewed by local leadership and sign a Code of Conduct in which they pledge to put their clients' needs ahead of their own. That should allay any fears of inviting strangers into your home, a concern that often intensifies as people age.
"As an organization," Marty Bell says, "NAIPC is trying to shift the conversation from explaining aging in place to helping people age in place." He said he sees the industry becoming "a department store, if you will, where one counter offers a choice of caregivers, another lists transportation options, a third provides food delivery options and a fourth lists options to make your home easier to navigate."
In an effort to get aging adults to start thinking about their own situations, the Council has developed "Act III: Your Plan for Aging in Place," a toolkit to help people start thinking about their own situations. What do they have now and what will they need in the future?
The 24-page document takes about an hour to complete, but it is time well spent. Covering key areas like housing, health, finance, transportation, social interaction, education and entertainment, it walks seniors through the essential concerns necessary to sustain a safe and secure lifestyle in their homes.
The NAICP is also collaborating with the School of Social Welfare at Stony Brook University in New York to develop a college course to teach social work students how to become aging-in-place specialists. And by the middle of next year, it expects to have in place a home-assistance hotline for round-the-clock advice and assistance.
For now, the Act III toolkit is available at no cost at ageinplace.org.