“Age is just a mindset,” Dean and Connie Weir always said. They planned to age in place, as they’d helped Dean’s mom Ruth do. Having remodeled part of their home into a mother-in-law apartment, they lived with Ruth for half the year and she lived with her other adult children for the remainder of the year.
Ruth almost made it to 100 years old before she died peacefully at home. A few years later, Dean died in the same room at the age of seventy-four, and suddenly Connie needed to consider her senior living options. She sold her home and moved in with her daughter for a time. Then the old high school became Athena Apartments, billed as a suitable community for folks 55 and older. She lived there for almost ten years, using the handrails to pull herself up the steps- as a child she had polio which permanently damaged the cartilage in her hips- later relying on her walker and the elevators.
Athena Apartments offered enough amenities to be a good independent living option. Rent was affordable. The apartments were compact enough, but not cramped. Residents could walk the halls for exercise or head down to the fitness center, walk in the gym, or exercise in the pool. The doors remained locked at all times, making Connie, a widow living alone for the first time in her life, feel safe. Maintenance responded quickly and always solved her concerns. Her only concern was whether the safety plan for disabled neighbors would be effective when tested- the one elevator sometimes broke and electricity sometimes went out. Owners assured renters of a plan to have EMTs arrive with a slide to help everyone escape safely.
Before Athena raised rents and changed owners, which priced out seniors, Connie pined for a quiet place outside to sit in the sun. Younger residents often smoked and gossiped on the two benches outside.
Connie’s story is hers, but represents the typical concerns and the unsettling changes that come from growing older. Aging bodies anticipate the depth of a couch, the distance between dishes and stove, the height to step into the shower, the presence of stairs and the curled edge of a floor rug. Small things like light switches, door handles, the grade of a handicap ramp become hazards.
Some hire Kitty Haffner, senior move coach with Total Solutions, to advise them on how to make a home habitable until a move becomes inevitable. Haffner advises clients on reorganizing their space, as well as when and where to move when their home no longer suits their needs. At that point, they must contend with the shortage of senior living options in the county.
In 2020, just over 7200 of Montgomery County residents were sixty-five or over. The housing shortage is hitting them hard. There are condos for those ready to downsize, but prices are steep, said Haffner. Many are $200,000-$300,000 dollars, a breathtaking investment for people for seniors, many of whom may not live independently for another fifteen to thirty years. There are assisted living options, but not enough. Haffner noted that many seniors find better options in Brownsburg, Lafayette, and Indianapolis, but that requires seniors to move away from social networks. Not many know where to begin to look for housing, and few can afford to hire a professional.
A significant segment of the county’s seniors need aid for housing, in addition to healthcare and food assistance. Section 8 housing vouchers prioritize the aging and disabled. Though Montgomery County does boast a strong number of Section 8 vouchers, the competitive market and lack of safe, decent housing is affecting them.
Complicating the matter is finding information. Websites are often not senior friendly. For example, a search for the official website for the local housing authority is mislinked. Other sites have posted outdated, inaccurate, or confusing information. Most resources are for-profit. Too few non-profit online resources exist.
While some families can make their homes multi-generational, not everyone can. Connie moved in with one of her adult kids before the pandemic. She has been able to shelter from the community spread of COVID that took many seniors lives. To prepare for her move, it took some minor remodeling: setting aside a first floor room for her, turning a half-bath into a full with a step-in shower, ensuring the room rugs lay flat, rearranging the kitchen so she can reach dishes and appliances, putting in smart devices to manage lighting and media, installing a handicap ramp so she can come and go, and a code system to allow her to welcome visitors. The porch rocker and patio swing help her enjoy the weather when it's nice. Connie will age in place as long as her health allows. This solution was a whole family effort, and a luxury for many, which is why housing for seniors requires community planning.
The League of Women Voters in Montgomery County concluded a housing study in 2017. Their data affirmed the call for more options for seniors, options that focus on affordability, dignity, and capacity for all stages of aging.