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Why inner-city living isn't always best for elderly people

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For older people seeking an easier life, living in inner-city apartments comes with its own problems.

So, you’re in your seventies, still fit and well, and you’re thinking of downsizing from your long-time family home and moving to an inner-city apartment. You like the idea of being able to walk to the supermarket, eat in local cafes and generally enjoy the central-city vibe.

But although city living has a lot to offer, Miranda Smith, whose company, Miranda Smith Homecare, provides in-home care nationwide, says that if you want to continue living independently into your seventies and beyond, you need to take practical considerations into account. What happens, say, if your apartment is in central Auckland and you have a fall or a stroke, or develop a chronic illness that means you need someone to help you shower?

“It’s impossible to get people into the middle of the city if you want help with showering at eight or 8.30am, because the rest of Auckland is trying to go there, too.”

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Even if nothing calamitous happens, it’s likely your health needs will change as you get older, which may also make inner-city living harder. “How easy is it to be in an apartment and get to the doctor?”

But although you may be happy to stay living in the suburbs close to all the services you need, your current home may not be old-person friendly, either. Steps, stairs, narrow hallways and small toilets/bathrooms can all create challenges as we age.

Surveys suggest that most older people want to keep living independently. Helping them to “age in place” is also one of the key goals of the country’s Positive Ageing Strategy. Many studies have found that people living in their own home are healthier and happier than those in residential care. It’s also cheaper than moving into a retirement village or a rest home.

The good news is that, with a bit of planning and a few relatively simple – and often inexpensive – modifications, combined with home-help support from private organisations such as Smith’s or funded by district health boards, for those who qualify, it’s possible to stay in the home you love and feel comfortable in.

Smith says one of the most common modifications older people make is turning an existing bathroom into a wet room – where the shower floor is on the same level as the rest of the floor, making access easy.

Miranda Smith. Photo/Supplied

“A wet room can make a big difference. The bathroom is really important, because you need to be able to continue with your personal care. And if you are having a carer come in, it needs to be big enough for them to be in there as well.”

Even if you can’t afford to remodel your bathroom, getting grab bars, non-slip mats and a shower stool can make bathing safer and easier. And although you might balk at paying between $6000 and $16,000 for a stairlift, it’s a good investment if it means you can continue living in your two-storey home. You’ll pay less to replace a few entrance steps with a ramp to reduce the risk of falling and nothing to remove potentially hazardous side tables and rugs in your living areas.

Good lighting can also help prevent falls, and Smith recommends having a touch-sensitive lamp beside the bed to avoid fumbling with a switch during the night.

Of course, you don’t have to stay in your present home. You may decide to buy a smaller house in the same suburb, so that you can keep your familiar connections, or to a retirement village, or even to move to a different town or city.

The important thing, says Age Concern chief executive Stephanie Clare, is that you make the decision yourself rather than feeling it’s being forced on you.

“Do you really want to move, or do you feel social pressure to move because you feel you’re taking up space a family could use? Older people have the right to stay in the homes they have grown into, and to be cared for in the homes they love.”

This article was first published in the March 23, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.