Lifeline medical alert systems can summon help within minutes. Photo courtesy of BJC Home Care Services

Some seniors look forward to moving into a retirement community. Others prefer to remain in their homes as long as they can. But staying put, a growing trend known as ‘living in place,’ often involves adapting the home environment to meet the needs of a graying household. Below, area contractors and caregivers discuss changes that can make independent living as enjoyable and safe as possible, for as long as possible.

Houlihan Development Co.

Builder Mike Houlihan is confined to a wheelchair, but he doesn’t let it stop him from living fully. “I’m determined to help others do the same, especially older people who want to stay in their own homes,” he says. “Communities thrive on the diversity contributed by neighbors of all ages.”

Until recently, most homes weren’t built with the needs of the elderly in mind, Houlihan says. He wants to change that. “The homes I design and remodel have wider doorways, at least 36 inches, to make them wheelchair- and walker-friendly,” he explains. “They also have curbless showers with a seat.” He minimizes steps wherever possible, often adding ramps or elevators.

Other ‘limitless’ features include bathroom basins tall enough for wheelchairs to roll under, kitchen base cabinets with pull-out shelves, intercom systems so residents can get help if they fall, and pavement for wheelchairs and walkers throughout the yard and garden. “Too many seniors lower their expectations as they age, and put up with things that aren’t quite right,” Houlihan says. “My dream is for people to live extraordinary lives all their lives, not just when they’re young. And I use my resources as a developer to make that dream come true.”

Lutheran Senior Services

“There is no such thing as a generic senior,” says Lea Ann Coates, Lutheran Senior Services (LSS) director of marketing and home services. “We’re all individuals with specific needs, and that doesn’t change with age.” LSS, which has 19 retirement living locations in the area, also offers a full array of options for older adults who want to live at home. “A little extra help and a few adjustments are usually all it takes to stay independent,” Coates says.

The key to successful living in place is preventing minor problems from turning into major ones. “It starts with an individualized, in-home assessment of needs,” Coates says. “We look at the client’s environment, mental and physical health, support system and other factors, then design a personalized program.” Some clients might need assistance with housework, errands, home repairs or balancing the checkbook; others might require 24-hour skilled care or hospice care. “We provide many of these services ourselves, or we can link clients with other organizations or independent caregivers.”

Needs change over time, Coates acknowledges. “But safety is always paramount, and LSS covers all the bases with a wide range of personal emergency response systems, based on wireless technology and motion sensors.” Too many people wait until a crisis occurs before they seek supportive services for Mom or Dad, she notes. “But if a parent wants to stay home, advance planning with a professional helps immensely.”

BJC Home Care Services

“Home is often the best place for most seniors, as long as they have adequate services that make it safe and secure,” says Donna Elliott, Lifeline consultant for BJC Home Care Services. BJC Home Care offers home health visits, in-home safety evaluations and an extensive list of options for seniors determined to stay put.

“A personalized program of home services, along with a Lifeline medical alert system, can extend the time people stay at home,” Elliott says. “With Lifeline, the client wears a small, wireless transmitter, or help button, that sends a signal to a 24-hour response center should an emergency occur. Help arrives within minutes.” The latest model, Lifeline AutoAlert, is equipped with motion sensors and automatically sends help if the client is disoriented, immobilized or unconscious, she adds.

“Thanks to technology, we can prevent dangerous secondary consequences, such as aspiration pneumonia, that occur when an older person falls and lies immobile for hours or days,” Elliott says. “When seniors are afraid of falling, they limit their movement, stop exercising, go into a downward spiral and lose strength. Lifeline gives them confidence to keep moving.”