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Working with older adults for 35 years has given me insight into various aspects of aging sooner than many others my age. One of these is the certain knowledge that I want to age in place. This concept is about continuing to live in one’s own home for as long as it is possible because that is the most desirable and economical place to be for housing and care.

You all probably know an older adult who stayed in their home but without the appropriate modifications to make it safe. Perhaps a fall going down the basement steps to do laundry was the event that forced a move – and often a downward spiral in health. Aging in place is about addressing the barriers to staying in your own home before they become issues of safety or mobility.

We baby boomers like to think of ourselves as forever young and healthy. But most of us will have at least one disability affecting us as we age: loss of hearing, balance issues, need for adaptive devices, diminished eyesight, difficulty gripping – the list goes on. If you like the notion of aging in place, as I do, it’s very important that we learn how we need to modify our homes now, and begin doing it.

I have recognized for some time that my current home is too big and I suspected that I couldn’t cost effectively adapt it for aging in place. A split-level built in the 1970s, its narrow hallways, small bathrooms and plethora of stairs tell the story. What I suspected was confirmed when I recently attended the Montana Gerontology Society conference held here in April. Among other things, the theme of “Foundations for Successful Aging” explored the need to look at “universal design” in the home. I came away with a lot of great ideas.

The keynote speaker was Louis Tenenbaum, a former carpenter and contractor, and now a leading thinker, speaker and consultant on aging in place. His focus is on universal design of existing and future homes. This concept encompasses designing and building homes to be aesthetic and usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of age, ability or status in life. Much of what Tenenbaum discussed was about building safe environments to age in place. He maintains that using the universal design concept for homebuilding increases a home’s marketability because it appeals to families with young children just as it does to people who have disabilities.

Across the nation, communities are adopting “visitability” ordinances that push for a minimum of these standards. Visitability means that the home has a zero-step entrance on an accessible route at the front, back, side or through the garage. All main-floor interior doorways have 32 inches of clear passage space. Any half or full main-floor bathroom must have basic maneuvering space, meaning a 5-foot turning circle and open floor space in which a wheelchair can maneuver. Additional tips include good lighting, grab bars and no throw rugs.

The concept of visitability also means creating an environment where your aging parents or anyone with a disability can still visit you. Today, most homes are not able to accommodate a person in a wheelchair or other device that does not allow them to use stairs.

Tenenbaum’s talk couldn’t have been timed better, because on April 7 Missoula’s City Council passed our own visitability ordinance. While it doesn’t make visitability standards mandatory – only state law could do that – it does have a built-in incentive. Anyone submitting a visitability design will move to the front of the line during the permitting process. From what I understand, that should be a good motivator.

I’m proud that our city demonstrated its commitment to helping people of all ages, especially those who want to age in place. I’m also happy that I have added information as I move ahead in my plan to downsize and age in place. I know better what to look for in existing homes that have these features, which are few in Missoula, or a home that could be cost-effectively remodeled. Perhaps I’ll even decide to build my own home that at least meets the visitability standards.

As you think about where you will live as you grow older, I encourage you to learn more about the aging-in-place concept. Let’s encourage builders and developers we know to do so as well. The time to act is now, so Missoula can meet the wave of us who will want these homes in the future.

Susan Kohler is CEO of Missoula Aging Services.

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