Health experts say living at home can enhance health for seniors, but modifications to bathrooms and other locations may be necessary. 
(Adobe Stock)
Health experts say living at home can enhance health for seniors, but modifications to bathrooms and other locations may be necessary. (Adobe Stock)

A 2012 survey by the American Association of Retired Persons found that 9 in 10 seniors intend to live in their current homes for the next five to 10 years. The same investigation revealed that among Americans 70 and older, only 43 percent find it very easy to live independently.

The gist? Aging at home takes more preparation and forethought than many seniors realize. But Oregon’s two Catholic health systems have spent decades devising ways to help patients continue living in their houses as long as possible.

Dr. Christa Danielson, a PeaceHealth geriatrician, offers three tips for successfully extending your time living at home:

• Work it out so you are not going up and down stairs.

• But stay otherwise active, with daily exercise and flexibility workouts.

• Enter community life. A Vanderbilt University study this year found that people who regularly attend church, synagogue or mosque reduce their risk of early death by 55 percent.

The comfortable, familiar environment of home can stabilize or improve health, say officials from PeaceHealth, which operates hospitals and clinics in Lane County and environs. PeaceHealth doctors can even prescribe home care, in which nurses pay visits. The nurses then teach patients and family how to perform self-care, increasing how long a senior can stay at home. Social workers, occupational therapists and physical therapists also come, as do home health aides who help with bathing, dressing, and care for nails and skin.

The biggest mistake seniors make when trying to stay at home is neglecting to engage others in their lives, says Dr. Danielson. Older adults living at home should have someone check on them regularly, whether it’s PeaceHealth workers or family.

She laughs to say it, but Danielson has observed that the kinder seniors are, the better their home care, including from relatives.

Providence Health and Services, Oregon’s largest health provider, screens and endorses organizations that help patients with daily tasks like transportation, preparing a meal, walking the dog, bathing and dressing.

Called Optimal Aging, the referral program seeks out options that fit even small budgets. Seniors can request a free in-depth review of their needs or a specific service.

“No one should have to move into an assisted living facility, adult family home, or nursing home just because they need a little extra help around the house,” says Marika Rausa, director of operations for Optimal Aging.

One of the best things seniors can do if they want to live at home during the aging process is to stay engaged with their primary doctor, says Ruth Johanson, executive director of the Providence Senior Health Program. In assisted living and nursing homes, residents get help taking medications and monitoring the results. If seniors stay at home, they need to find ways to remember to take their pills and then stay in touch with doctors about possible side effects and needed changes.

The primary physician also can be the gateway to steps like an assessment of the home, in which experts warn seniors against risks like throw rugs, which are tripping hazards. The teams may suggest ramps or bars in the shower.

Johanson urges seniors to seek out community groups like AARP, which give guidance on finding free and low-cost services like transportation and food.

Area Agencies on Aging provide referrals to trustworthy caregivers.

For some seniors who are fragile and have trouble getting out to medical care, Providence offers house calls. Available only to Providence Health Plan Medicare Advantage members in Clackamas, Multnomah, Washington and parts of Yamhill counties, the praogram dispatches doctors, nurses or even pastoral care personnel within an hour if needed. It’s designed to provide aid that once happened via expensive ambulance and emergency room.

Among the mistakes seniors living at home make is dismissing falls as just clumsiness. “Falls are an indicator that something is wrong,” says Johanson, suggesting that vision and balance need to be investigated regularly. “Don’t be in denial.”

The more active a senior is, the longer he or she can stay at home, Johanson explains. Exercise and stretching regimens can be crucial.

Health insurance may cover medical procedures in the home. But patients, even those on Medicare, must pay out of pocket for help with daily life. Danielson of PeaceHealth says seniors may be able to find good help for as little as $20 per hour and can get by with two or three hours per day. That may seem expensive, but not compared to assisted living and nursing care, which can cost $200 per day.

As Baby Boomers age, providers will get more creative about home care, Johanson predicts. Technology may be put in place to monitor if a senior is eating and taking medications. Danielson says that in the future, there may be more arrangements in which caregivers provide help and live in the home without paying rent.

Representatives of the two Catholic systems think their values bring added compassion to home care. Danielson says Catholic organizations are more willing to spend money on the project.

Émilie Gamelin, who founded the Providence Sisters, started her ministry with seniors in their homes in the early 19th century. “Our whole history is entrenched in meeting people where they live and where they are,” Johanson says, adding that spiritual care is always part of the plan. 

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For more information

Providence’s Optimal Aging service, home aid referral, is available to any senior living in the Portland area. Consultants can be reached at 503-215-2500. In Lane County, PeaceHealth Home Health Services can be reached at 541-461-7500.