10/11/2012 05:46 pm ET Updated Dec 11, 2012

Making it Easier to Age in Place

"Aging in place isn't as easy as it sounds."

I heard these words recently from a friend who lost her husband less than a year ago. She was exasperated and I didn't blame her. Her face still showed the strain of her years of caregiving. She had worked very hard to make sure her husband could age -- and eventually die -- in the home he loved.

Now my friend faces an uncertain future alone. She worries that she won't be able to remain independent for as long as her husband did.

I try to reassure my friend. I tell her that providers of aging services want to help older adults age in place. I explain that many policy makers support aging in place because it improves quality of life and saves public dollars.

Of course, we can't yet guarantee that aging in place won't be an exhausting struggle for older adults and their families. We have a lot more work to do before every older American can grow old easily wherever they choose.

Center for Housing Plus Services

Fortunately, housing providers around the country have already begun this work. Their efforts will move forward significantly this fall when the LeadingAge Center for Housing Plus Services opens its doors. The new center will:

  • Identify and evaluate innovative approaches that bring services and supports to senior housing communities.
  • Serve as a clearinghouse for proven housing-plus-services strategies that help older people of all income levels remain healthy and independent, while saving health care dollars.
  • Advocate for federal and state policies that support the development, adoption and funding of proven housing-plus-services models.

Aging in Place: Not Just a Theory

There is already strong evidence that providing the right services and supports at the right time in the right place can transform the lives of older adults. We know that these services and supports can prevent falls, emergency room visits and nursing home placements.

These positive outcomes were on display recently at the prestigious Academy Health conference, a gathering of prominent researchers in the field of health and aging services.

We heard about Community Aging in Place, Advancing Better Living for Elders (CAPABLE), a pilot program that the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing launched three years ago in Baltimore. Like many housing-plus-services programs, CAPABLE employs a nurse to help older adults manage their chronic conditions. What sets CAPABLE apart is its attention to the older person's physical environment.

Occupational therapists working with the program go into homes and apartments to assess how older people move around their living space. They identify simple and inexpensive solutions that help older people carry out normal activities like cooking and bathing. In an added twist, handymen play a big role in the program. They make home repairs that help minimize the risk of falls and other accidents that often threaten health and independence.

The outcomes have been very positive. Program participants are demonstrating better health and improved mobility.

Spreading the Good News

The LeadingAge Center for Housing Plus Services wants to learn more about programs like CAPABLE. We want to know which innovative approaches work -- and why they work. And then we want to tell others about successful strategies.

We'd like small programs like CAPABLE to become large-scale initiatives that touch the lives of older adults from a variety of economic backgrounds.

Most important, we want to make sure that older adults like my friend can look forward to living their later years exactly the way they want to live, in the place they want to call home.