17 Apr 2019
Jess Kuehne recounts her recent visit to the home of someone rapidly losing their mobility. She gives a personal perspective on the heartbreak faced by people whose homes are no longer suitable for them but who don’t want to move anywhere else.
A few months ago, I accompanied an occupational therapist as she was visiting people to assess what adaptations and changes need to be made to their homes to better suit their needs. Mark,* in his 60s, was one of the individuals we visited.
As I sat down on a soft, colourful patterned chair in Mark’s living room I was struck by the unique character of the room. The mismatched chairs and sofas gave the home a certain charm, and it was clear that Mark and his wife had put in a lot of time and thought into designing this space.
And yet, despite its warmth and charm, Mark’s house was quickly becoming unsuitable for him. Mark lives with multiple sclerosis, which makes walking and moving around difficult for him. The only bathroom in his two-bedroom house is on the first floor. Mark was having trouble climbing stairs, which is why the occupational therapist had arranged for a handyman to install a stair railing to help him get upstairs.
However, due to the progressive nature of Mark’s condition, it was clear that a handrail might soon not be enough. In a few years’ time, Mark may no longer be able to walk at all, which means he will face a difficult set of choices if he wants to keep living in a house where the bathroom and the bedroom are both up a flight of stairs.
The occupational therapist discussed what future options Mark may want to consider, including installing a lift to him get upstairs. But the reality is that, should he ever require a wheelchair, he will not be able to stay in his home.
Even if adaptations are installed to support Mark to get upstairs or changes are made to move sleeping and bathroom arrangements downstairs, there was simply not enough space in front of the house to install a wheelchair ramp. There was a real risk that Mark could end up trapped in his home.
I prefer to be here… Don’t make me leave.
The occupational therapist suggested Mark may want to consider moving somewhere else, into a more suitable property. As she spoke, I could see heartbreak flickering across Mark’s eyes. Moving home was not an option. The emotional ties he and his wife had to their home and their community were simply too great for him to consider ever moving.
'I prefer to be here… Don’t make me leave,' he pleaded.
Watching this interaction unfold reminded me of the complexity involved in trying to meet the housing needs of our ageing population. As many more of us live longer, so too will there be many more of us living with disabilities. But much of our current housing stock simply isn’t suitable for people with any sort of mobility problem.
...encouraging people to move or ‘rightsize’ to a property for them more suitable than the one they’re living in is equally as tricky when the individual has a lifetime of emotional ties and doesn’t want to leave their community behind.
Putting in place home adaptations like stair railings or grab rails, or installing walk-in showers to make bathing step-free, can have a huge impact on enabling many people to stay living in their own homes and keep doing day-to-day activities. However, they won’t be the solution for everyone.
As Mark’s case demonstrates, encouraging people to move or ‘rightsize’ to a property more suitable than the one they’re living in is equally as tricky when the individual has a lifetime of emotional ties and doesn’t want to leave their community behind.
Assessments and interventions that have changed peoples' lives in their homes
This is why the Centre for Ageing Better is taking a two-fold approach to increasing the amount of safe and good quality housing available that meets our needs as we age.
We need urgent action to improve the quality of our current housing stock by investing in home adaptations and making homes more accessible, reducing the pressure for people to move home as they lose their mobility.
We also need to make sure that new builds are future proofed and built to accessible and adaptable standards, so that people like Mark have more options for where to live as they grow older.
Tragically, these solutions won’t help Mark to reconcile his declining physical abilities with his desire to stay in the home he’s made his own. They might be enough to help future generations of older people – but only if we act now.