There were two problems with her suggestion: First, there weren’t ranch-style homes in the areas where we were looking. Maybe there were none. And second, who did she think was old?
Joan seemed to think we would probably only get older. I was certain our reasonable degree of fitness would defeat those projections. I was deeply offended and probably let Joan know that. She eventually dropped these comments.
The late-stage Victorian house we had sold in New Jersey before the move had four tall floors. My office was in the basement, my husband’s on the third floor. It was not unusual for me to be climbing four flights of stairs several times a day. True, I was no longer running up the stairs by the time we moved in 2009, more of a plod, but I wasn’t completely breathless at the top, either. Stairs are good for your heart, right? So why give up stairs when you could have attractive public rooms on the ground floor and the messy bedrooms on the second?
I herein publicly apologize to Joan. She was right. One does get older. And maybe you, reader, will be lucky enough not to need knee surgery or hip surgery or require some organ repair or have to deal with back pain or arthritis or balance problems. And maybe you won’t.
At least one of our neighbors who has the same model house as ours and is even a bit younger than us has begun to customize their house so they can age in place. They have converted the bathroom to a disabled-friendly room: grab bars everywhere, a step-in bathtub and shower, a properly elevated toilet. The bathroom area is also wide enough for a wheelchair should that ever be needed. Renovations are both attractive and functional.
These lovely neighbors of ours have plans for a stair lift to navigate up and down from the bedrooms to the kitchen, garden, and dining and family room areas.
Another friend and neighbor did an extensive renovation on their older Colonial home built out to include a bedroom on the first floor and a disabled-friendly master bath. It’s what people in their 60s and 70s are doing now as they plan to age in place.
The cohort of my parents’ generation moved south as their accommodation to aging. There were virtually no steps in their sprawling condo and later home in Boca Raton, Fla., not even a small step at the threshold to their home. The threshold, at least in these condos, was flush with the front walk.
When my mother came north to accommodate her widowhood and declining health, moving closer to her adult children, even a step or two was a challenge. She had lost the knack. Maybe this was in the back of my mind when I gave Joan a hard time about steps.
My husband and I, on the other hand, moved closer to our adult children as retirement loomed. I think my parents and their neighbors and friends had their own form of denial. They did not consider that they would need care as they grew infirm and, more than likely, widowed.
I have to say there is still a loud voice inside me that asserts this will not be necessary in our case. My inner denial voice is fierce.
There is an illusion that many of us cling to that the way we are now is the way we will always be, more or less. Although I have a dim memory of transitioning from bounding up and down the stairs in our home in New Jersey to treading more slowly and carefully as the years progressed, I still held to my pride. And my denial.
So we bought a home with a lot of stairs. Seven stairs from the driveway to the front door. Six stairs from the foyer to the first floor. Sixteen stairs to the second-floor bedrooms. My office is in the basement, another seven stairs from the entrance.
The first real challenge was knee surgery. I had a bulky brace and some pain, and getting up and down the stairs to bathrooms and bedrooms required ingenuity — hopping on one foot, scooting on my backside — but it didn’t last all that long. I have friends whose houses had even more stairs than mine who managed multiple hip surgeries. It’s awkward, but it can be done.
Currently, I am recovering from an illness that affects both my vision and my balance. This is much more of a challenge, and the stairs are really hazardous when you have no depth perception. This condition has dragged on for some time and I’ve adjusted, but it is humbling. That boasting about our aerobic capacity seems foolish now. Yes, Joan. Okay, Joan.
As I gaze into the future, I find it mostly opaque. I can imagine at least two scenarios developing in the next 10 years. In one, my husband and I are still able enough to enjoy our beautiful house and accommodate to whatever decline is in store without too much difficulty and expense. In the other, at least one of us is more disabled and in need of renovations, not unlike my neighbors — or, more radically, we will need to move. I’m quite sure there are more scenarios beyond my imagination.
And now I am wondering if “aging in place,” customizing one’s home to accommodate an imagined future, is yet another dream — another plan, like Florida, that does not fully reckon with the vast uncertainty in store for us. The future is indeed a mystery. At the moment, I am inclined to rely on this philosophy of uncertainty and just stay put until all is revealed.
May Benatar is a psychotherapist in Silver Spring, Md., and author of the memoir “Emma and Her Selves: a Memoir of Treatment and a Therapist’s Self-Discovery.”