When Donna Holmes and her husband, Bob, started talking with her folks about finding a new place for them to live in Bellingham, it was a tentative discovery process.
One thing was clear: Holmes’ parents, John, 81, and Cynthia McSalls, 79, needed more care. After living in Seattle for more than 50 years, it was time for them to downsize and move closer to family. They settled on Bellingham to be closer to Holmes.
Holmes and her parents are not alone searching for a new home for aging family members. Buying a new home or remodeling an old one to make it user-friendly for seniors can be a stressful and expensive endeavor. Fortunately there are many resources in Whatcom County to help with the process.
Situating seniors in the best housing setup starts with questions.
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What kind of house do they want? What are their needs? Do they need an assisted-living situation, a duplex, a condo?
“Dad has a variety of diagnoses, and it was house-related issues that drove the process,” Holmes says. “It was decided a couple of years ago that they would move to Bellingham and be closer to us.”
They began by looking into assisted-living facilities, but quickly realized that the couple didn’t need that much support. Then they started looking at condos and slowly started to define what they needed in a home. They wanted a ground-floor condo, with two entrances, amenities within walking distance, a bus line nearby, safe places to walk outside, and it had to be 10 to 15 minutes from the Holmes’ residence.
“They also wanted to be near some assisted-living facilities, just in case one of them needed to be in assisted living and the other could stay in the condo,” Holmes says.
Since Holmes’ mother is a life-long learner who also wanted to take classes at Whatcom Community College, the couple finally settled on a condo development near the college and signed the closing papers in February. Holmes says that after a year and a half of looking, they knew the place when they found it.
MANY RESOURCES AVAILABLE
Maureen Kane, supervisor and planner with the Northwest Regional Council’s Senior Information and Assistance program, says her agency can provide a variety of information for 65-and-older homeowners, such as how to adapt homes relatively cheaply, how to hire a contractor and where to find financial assistance.
“There’s a real dearth of housing options for lower-income seniors or those slightly above that level,” Kane says. “Home modification issues are not cheap, either, and often they happen in a crisis. Someone may return home after being in the hospital and find that they can’t get their wheelchair through the door. This is why people have to start thinking about that in their 50s and 60s, before they need it.”
According to a national survey by the AdvantAge Initiative, one in five Americans will be over age 65 by 2030, and an overwhelming majority of those will stay in their own homes. The cost of living in those same homes will likely take a larger cut of their income, however; currently 31 percent of seniors spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Kane says that’s generally considered too much.
“We’re certainly hearing that seniors are spending more on housing than they used to, either because they might not have their house paid off before they retire or their taxes have increased while they remain on a fixed income,” Kane says. “Their costs go up while their income is static.”
On the other hand, another national trend is the increase in housing options for seniors. In-home services have increased, and developers are more aware of the needs of seniors and are building houses and condos with those needs in mind.
“What a lot of people don’t know is that there are so many more choices now than there used to be,” Kane says. “People can decide to stay in their own homes and have in-home care and their meals delivered, or they can live in a senior community or assisted living.”
While home modifications can be expensive, some financial assistance is available. Nancy Lloyd, 52, of Bellingham, says the city’s Home Rehabilitation Program has “been a godsend.” Through this program, Lloyd, who has multiple sclerosis, has been able to completely remodel her home to make every room more accessible for her — from a new hose in the kitchen sink to a vertical grab bar near her bed.
“I’m disabled and I had so many things done — safety is not an issue for me anymore,” she says.
The city’s loan program offers assistance to seniors who meet their age and income criteria. Joyce Bennett, a housing programs specialist with the city, says the program helps many people in the community remodel their homes.
“When people come through our loan program, first we look at health and safety issues such as leaky plumbing or electrical issues, and then address long-term maintenance and general property improvements,” Bennett says.
The income requirement for the program is that the applicant must have no more than 80 percent of the median income. This means a senior who has an income of $32,600 or less and lives in the city limits is eligible. These interest-free loans are for up to $24,000 and are paid back in full when the person moves out or passes away.
“We’ve loaned out millions of dollars since this program started in 1977, but a lot of people don’t know about it and it’s been spread more or less by word of mouth,” Bennett says.
With help from the loan, Lloyd hired Mark MacDonald, a contractor and owner of The Home Improvement Network of Bellingham, to remodel and improve her home. MacDonald installed a deeper sink and lowered the cabinets in her kitchen. In the bathroom, he installed higher toilets, grab bars and seats in the bathtub, and has also put in lever door knobs and energy-efficient windows and lights throughout the house. Energy efficiency can be a safety issue for older people who are at risk of falling and injuring themselves when changing light bulbs.
“I have a lot of older clients, and some just treat me as a handyman and want me to change a light bulb for them,” MacDonald says. “Sometimes you don’t know how much those little things can impact someone. You don’t want them to fall off a chair and break their hip.”
'MANY YEARS TO COME'
Storage has been another issue for Lloyd. MacDonald says he has installed a lot of storage in her house, including converting some closet space from hanging to shelves. Outside the house, he has installed a new hose winder for her garden and built a ramp. While Lloyd uses a walker now, she may someday need a wheelchair.
Lloyd says she’s grateful that the money for these modifications came from a loan that she has to pay back.
“I think people who are older don’t want to ask for things, but with this, you get to pay it back so it’s not a handout,” she says. “I really appreciate that.”
Lloyd has put a lot of thought into the changes she’s had done in her home. She says she’s stated in her will that she wants her house to be sold to someone who will also need the modifications.
“When I someday die or go to a nursing home, many years to come, this house will be able to go to somebody else who is disabled, and it will be accessible to them.”
NOT THE MOTHER-IN-LAW UNIT
While Lloyd has been able to stay in her home and make modifications, others such as Donna Holmes’ parents will choose to move into a new house or condo instead. Kathy Auerbach, a senior real estate specialist with Keller Williams Realty, says whether it’s baby boomers looking for a home for their parents or an older couple looking to downsize, many of the concerns are the same.
“It’s a different kettle of fish than most buyers and sellers,” she says. “Some seniors are going to need a reverse mortgage, for example, and you’re not going to see that with first timers. They’re just looking at houses a little differently.”
Some of the concerns that are common with older home buyers are safety and lighting, stair placement and maintenance. Holmes says that maintenance was an issue for her parents when they were looking at housing, and it was one of the factors in choosing a condominium. The family considered purchasing a duplex, but after living in an apartment in Seattle for many years, her parents were used to someone else taking care of the yard work.
A condo solved that problem, as they could have planter boxes instead of a yard to take care of.
“It gives my mom a deck to have plants, and it downsizes their garden into pots,” Holmes says.
While some older adults are looking for their own house or condo, Auerbach says other families decide they would rather live all together, either in the same multi-generational household or as two separate houses on the same property. Auerbach cautions her clients to talk carefully before making that decision, however.
“You have to be careful, because aging parents want a degree of independence and may not want to be in a mother-in-law unit,” she says. “They may want to be nearby, but not right next door. For some people, 100 miles is the best distance because no one can just barge in unannounced.”
Determining which style works best for older family members involves a lot of clear communication. Auerbach says the first thing to do when making this decision is to talk about everyone’s needs.
“Ask lots of questions and sit back and listen. Do they want to be within 10 minutes of the hospital or their doctor, or near walking trails or hills? It’s not just a matter of are the doorways wide enough for wheelchairs, but also where they are in the community.”
'INDEPENDENCE IS IMPORTANT'
Once a house is purchased, if it doesn’t already have modifications, Auerbach says some of the first things that can be done are simple and relatively inexpensive: putting hand rails in tubs and showers and adding seats in a bathtub, for example. Adding a ramp is expensive, she says.
Older people who are looking to buy houses that already have some of these modifications may be hard pressed to find exactly what they want.
“You don’t see houses with wheelchair ramps around very often, I can tell you,” Auerbach says. “Ramblers tend to be preferred.”
One issue that some seniors have with a wheelchair ramp is its prominence. Many people don’t want to advertise to the neighborhood that they use a wheelchair, so they may want to either have a ramp in the back of their house or, better yet, purchase a house that is all on one level and doesn’t need one at all.
“They don’t want to call attention to an issue of disability,” says Auerbach. “Independence is important, so anything that might make people wonder about some infirmity becomes an issue.”
START THE CONVERSATION EARLY
Holmes says that it takes time to determine which home or what modifications feel right for you or for an aging family member. For her family, that conversation became more important with her father’s failing health.
“They were hanging on to their independence for as long as possible,” Holmes says. “They realized that they would have to leave their friends and their home, and so the timing had to be right. I might be comfortable, but they may not be ready.”
Holmes says it’s important to start thinking about issues of mobility and aging early, before it suddenly becomes urgent. Whether the issue is for yourself or for your aging parents, it’s never too early to plan ahead.
“Start the discussions early,” she advises. “It’s nice to have those conversations, along the way, about what they’ll need, what they’d miss, what can we do that is similar to what they have now so they can maintain their same lifestyle. Don’t be afraid to talk about it because these are important conversations to have — before some crisis happens.”