For some, it's Florida. For others, Arizona. When it's time to retire, Americans have a wide range of destinations from which to choose. Whatever you end up deciding, there's no time like the present to set out a plan and take steps toward securing the perfect retirement dwelling.
With so much to think about, beginning early is key, says Dr. Lewis Mandell, an economist and author of several books on financial literacy. "The ability to make self-beneficial financial decisions peaks at around age 53," he notes, "although people who don't suffer any medical impairment can make reasonably good decisions into their late 70s. So it's never too early to begin putting your economic house in order."
The overwhelming majority of prospective retirees decide to simply stay put. A recent AARP study revealed that 90 percent of people over 65 wanted to remain in their homes after retirement, and 80 percent thought they would stay there for the remainder of their lives.
Staying put has a number of advantages, including comfort and familiarity, access to trusted community services, and a close-by network of family and friends. But a home that might be perfect for you in your 40s or even 50s might not be as good a fit during your later years, due to a number of factors.
Aging in place doesn't necessarily mean staying in your current home; it also can involve a move to another dwelling in the same area that provides better means of aging safely and gracefully. And, of course, many empty-nesters no longer need as much space and decide to downsize. That's a perfect opportunity to transition into an age-in-place home, says Mandel, who ticks off the benefits:
- Buying rather than renting builds equity and gives you at least some immunity from inflation.
- Staying put relieves you of the necessity of selling your home, which, depending on the current market, could even result in a net loss.
- Buying a home on one level, with wide doorways and other age-in-place amenities, can help you stay out of a nursing home if you suffer an injury or illness.
"It also means that if you're running short of cash to sustain your standard of living, you can take out a reverse mortgage, which will pay you a monthly amount to supplement Social Security and your other investments," Mandel explains.
Louis Tenenbaum is a contracting consultant and proponent of the universal design concept - building or renovating homes to make them safe and comfortable for people of any age. That approach is wise because you never know what the future might bring or "who we become," as Tenenbaum puts it. First and foremost, future-proofing means living in a home on a single level, which maximizes access to all areas. The most critical are the bathroom and bedroom, so first make sure there's an unobstructed travel path to those places.
In the bathroom, Tenenbaum recommends eliminating towel bars in favor of grab bars, which also can hold towels but won't give way if you grab one while falling. "Everywhere you can reach, there should be something that will hold you well," he says. "I also like to have a lot of maneuvering space around the toilet in case you ever need someone there to help you." Health issues and accidents can happen at any age, he notes, and optimizing your home for retirement also will pay off in case you need to rehabilitate there for a period of time.
What if you bought a multilevel home when younger and now have trouble negotiating stairs? The usual remedies are elevators and stair lifts, but both have their drawbacks, says Tenenbaum. Elevators are expensive and take up quite a bit of space on each level, but they do provide easy access for wheelchairs. Some contractors leave room for an elevator shaft when building a home, which the owner can turn into closet space or a reading nook until needed. Stair lifts work well but require a wheelchair and perhaps an assistant at both ends, limiting their usefulness, Tenenbaum notes. "I've had clients who had to be strapped in so they didn't fall off," he says, "so there's a lot to consider."
Researchers now are investigating a number of technological solutions that promise to make it even easier to stay put, including passive communication devices that will detect falls and other health-related events to alert physicians and family members.Stephen Intille, Ph.D., a health informatics professor at Northwestern University in Illinois, even sees a day when homes might measure our biosigns, catching developing problems early. Further down the road, domestic robots might assist with everyday chores, he says.
Of course, those tech breakthroughs are going to take a while to get here. While you're dreaming, there's still a lot you can do to make your home a safe and secure place to continue growing where you're most comfortable.