Thoughts about Growing Old in the RIGHT Place

“Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam,
Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home;
A charm from the skies seems to hallow us there,
Which seek thro’ the world, is ne’er met elsewhere.
Home! Home!
Sweet, sweet home!
There’s no place like home
There’s no place like home!”

Sound familiar? It should. The song Home Sweet Home has been sung the world over for some 150 years. We can thank Sir Henry Bishop for composing it and actor and dramatist John Howard Payne for the lyrics.

The song’s message has never been timelier, given all the discussion around the nation, in Augusta, and in our local communities about ways in which we need to enable older adults to remain safe and secure in their own homes and beloved neighborhoods. I don’t know about you, but I’m warning my wife and kids that they will have to take me kicking and screaming from my home if I am not ready to leave it. And, I don’t much care what ailments I’m grappling with, I’m thinking I will want to deal with them in the comfort and privacy of my home – after all it is my castle, right?

And my philosophy about this is not unusual. The fact is surveys conducted over the years confirm time and time again that others feel just like me. In fact nine out of ten citizens want to take their last breadth of air right there in their own homes. There is even a National Aging in Place Council and a designated Aging in Place Week each year that is now celebrated across the country. It is all about promoting your right and ability to age independently.

Well hold on there. Are any of us truly living independently! Back-to-the-landers probably come closest. But those hearty folks are relatively few in number. I will be honest; I am thinking more recently that my position on the idea of aging in place needs to be slightly modified. I have decided to refine my thinking based, in part on a book recently published by a colleague I respect highly, Dr. Stephen Golant. His book is titled Aging in the Right Place (Health Professions Press, 2015). Stephen reminds us of the profound influence that where we choose to live can have on our ability to age successfully. Stephen believes that we can thrive as we age in not just our own homes but rather in a variety of places as long as where we live is tailored to match our personal situations, interests, and choices. He believes that just as or more important as remaining independent is living in places where our lifestyle and limitations are closely matched and where we can live life out on our own terms. I interpret that to mean that remaining in our own homes is not always going to be the answer because if we are living there without our basic needs being met it could mean we are living a life that is not very satisfying.

I believe there is a powerful lesson to be learned here. Some of you will know where I am going. Yup – it is all about taking responsibility for planning for our own personal futures and not leaving it to chance or even in the hands of our families or well-meaning health professionals. It is about being honest about how and where you want to live your life based on your personal situation and interests. In the absence of planning to grow old in the RIGHT place you are, in effect, putting yourself at the mercy of others. Personal planning is empowering and enables us to retain as much control as is possible in our lives recognizing the unpredictability of human existence.

And, don’t think you need or should be doing this planning alone. Seek advice from those whose opinion you respect and trust. In my case, my wife is helping enormously. Dyan has led the way in encouraging us to transition to one floor living and preparing in advance for the day when climbing stairs might become the bane of my existence and ultimately my downfall.

I’m thinking what is ultimately crucial, is not where you live (be it a small apartment in town, a cottage in the woods, the guest room in your child’s home, a senior housing complex, an assisted living community, or even a nursing home) but whether you have participated in making that lifestyle decision and had a chance to prepare yourself in advance to be there. Because one person’s heaven could well be another person’s hell, what is of overriding importance is that one’s home (wherever and whatever it is we choose to call home!) be a place we had a voice in choosing at the same time that it is able to satisfy as wide a range of basic human needs as possible including our emotional, social, and physical expectations.

Len Kaye

About Len Kaye

Dr. Lenard W. Kaye is Professor of Social Work at the University of Maine School of Social Work and Director of the UMaine Center on Aging.