Seniors: Aging in place: a little help can go a long way

verona, n.j.   |   Retirement communities may have their perks, but Beryl O’Connor says it would be tough to match the birthday surprise she got in her own backyard when she turned 80 last year.

She was tending her garden when two little girls from next door — “my buddies,” she calls them — brought her a strawberry shortcake. It underscored why she wants to stay put in the house that she and her husband, who died 19 years ago, purchased in the late 1970s.

“I couldn’t just be around old people — that’s not my lifestyle,” she said. “I’d go out of my mind.”

Physically spry and socially active, O’Connor in many respects is the embodiment of “aging in place,” growing old in one’s own longtime home and remaining engaged in the community rather than moving to a retirement facility.

Beryl O’Connor prefers to live in her home of more than 40 years. photo/ap-rich schultz

According to surveys, aging in place is the overwhelming preference of Americans over 50. But doing it successfully requires both good fortune and support services — things that O’Connor’s hometown of Verona has become capable of providing.

About 10 miles northwest of Newark, Verona has roughly 13,300 residents nestled into less than 3 square miles. There’s a transportation network that takes older people on shopping trips and to medical appointments, and an aging-in-place program called Verona Live.

Administrated by United Jewish Communities of MetroWest New Jersey, the program strives to educate older people about available services to help them address problems and stay active in the community. Its partners include the health and police departments, schools and religious groups.

Among the support services are a home maintenance program with free safety checks and minor home repairs, access to a social worker and job counselor, a walking club and other social activities.

Social worker Connie Pifher, Verona’s health coordinator, said a crucial part of the overall initiative is educating older people to plan ahead realistically and constantly reassess their prospects for successfully aging in place.

“There are some people who just can do it, especially if they have family support,” said Pifher, “And then you run into people who think they can do it, yet really can’t. You need to start educating people before a crisis hits.”

There’s no question that aging in place has broad appeal. That yearning to stay in your own home, coupled with a widespread dread of going to a nursing home, has led to a nationwide surge of programs aimed at helping people stay in their neighborhoods longer.

Verona Live (Lifelong Involvement for Vital Elders) originated as a federally funded Aging in Place program in 2010, modeled on similar programs elsewhere in N.J.

A retirement committee plans educational and social programming geared toward those who are newly retired or approaching retirement. Residents have access to Jewish Vocational Services employment counseling and a Jewish Family Services social worker.

All residents over age 60 are welcome to participate in Verona Live programs. Verona is an apt setting. Roughly 20 percent of its residents are over 65.

One of the potential problems for people hoping to age in place is that their homes may not be senior-friendly

“It becomes a challenge because we live in Peter Pan houses, designed for people who never grow old,” said Susan Bosak, a social scientist who is overseeing a program to boost intergenerational engagement in Tulsa, Okla.

Many older people live in older homes with narrow interior doorways, hard-to-reach kitchen cupboards and potentially hazardous bathroom fixtures.

“If you’re a boomer person, with money to remodel, think about making your house more user-friendly, not just more beautiful, for when you have your knee replacement or a chronic condition,” said Nancy Thompson of AARP. “We’re talking smart, convenient. It doesn’t have to look institutional or utilitarian.”

To promote this outlook, AARP has teamed up with the National Association of Home Builders to create a designation for certified aging-in- place specialists trained in designing and modifying residences for the elderly. Several thousand builders, contractors, remodelers and architects have been certified. Building or remodeling homes can include such details as touchless faucets, trim kitchen drawers instead of cupboards, grab bars and nonslip floors in the bathrooms.

Ira and Roseanne Bornstein, who live a few blocks from O’Connor, also think their longtime home can accommodate them suitably for many years to come. There’s a room on the ground floor they could convert to a bedroom, and space upstairs to house a live-in aide if one were needed.

“It’s a modest home, but it’s always worked for us,” said Rosanne Bornstein, who is in her 60s and was a school counselor and teacher for 25 years. “We’re very strong in wanting to stay here.”

Her 70-year-old husband, a retired pharmacist, said they worry that the economics of relocating might result in a smaller residence, and crimp their ability to entertain and host out-of-town guests.

“People are younger and healthier when they retire,” he said. “If you plan right, you can have a lot of time to enjoy it.”