Housing and the Meaning of Life

Thinking about moving to a new house or “downsizing” to an apartment or condo? Remember you’re choosing more than a new style of housing. What you’re really choosing is a lifestyle.

Many people consider moving when they near retirement. A few are headed for a warmer climate, or move closer to children or grand kids. But for many, the goal is to simplify their lives by shedding excess life baggage – including unneeded living space – that can suck up time, energy and money they’d rather use for something else.This can be a time of “vital aging.” That’s a phrase developed several years ago by planner Jan Hively at the University of Minnesota and a few others who developed the Vital Aging Network (www.vital-aging-network.org ). The network helps people envision how to create fulfilling lives for

themselves as they age. Of course, Hively reminds us, life should be “vital” for all of us at any age. But one of the many benefits of growing older and into retirement (whatever “retirement” means for you these days) is that you’ve got more choice about how to spend your time and resources. Your kids may be launched, your family and work obligations may be fewer, and you can make new decisions about to invest yourself in your life.

Whether you’ll be living on a tidy nest egg or just Social Security, there’s plenty to consider as you match your housing with your emerging lifestyle. Square footage and design matter. But so do location, the neighborhood (and your new neighbors) and some amenities you might not have considered. But first, do you really want to move? Don’t swap housing just because you need a new furnace or you hate mowing the grass. If you like your neighborhood, if services and attractions are convenient and your house is almost what you want, consider staying put. You can buy a lot of snow shoveling and grass mowing for less than the cost of moving.A few investments in your house might make it close to perfect. Whether you’re thinking of moving or want to fix up your current home, think about your current and future needs, then consider your options.

Staying in your current home:

Add or remodel – A new bath or bedroom on the main floor may make your house work better for you – and increase its value. Consider updating the kitchen or converting a first-floor den into a bedroom. (If you own your home, with a small or no mortgage, a reverse mortgage can help you finance some of these home changes.)

Add amenities – Build an outdoor ramp to the house (as I did) or put in a stair lift that gets you to the second floor (as my parents-in-law did).

Look at emergency efficiency – Putting in new, efficient and easy-to-clean windows also may cut your heating and cooling costs (and if you don’t have an air conditioner, adding one can make a world of difference on hot July nights). A new, efficient furnace or more insulation also can help.

Convert the fireplace – Wood fireplaces offer a great atmosphere, but converting it to natural gas makes it much easier to use, no wood to wrestle with, and no more smoky backdrafts.

Make your home safer – Get rid of throw rugs, electric cords that snake across the floor, shaky chairs or protruding furniture – all of which can cause you to fall. Install handrails in the bathroom.

These changes are cheap and among the most important things you can do to protect your safety, at any age.

Choosing a new home:

 Location, location, location – Life in a new housing complex in the Lakes Region may be great, especially in the summer, and especially if you don’t need to see your granddaughter give her tuba recital. On the other hand, a big city gal who likes all those amenities close at hand may get frustrated prowling the freeways to get groceries, a movie or the Guthrie.

Size matters – If you’ve been rattling around a 2,500-square foot house and want something smaller, will a condo half that size be too cramped? Check with friends who live in smaller quarters. Maybe you can “test drive” their place when they go on vacation. If you’ve got your eye on a condo or apartment complex, see if you can rent a place for a week or so, just to check it out. How much of your essential stuff will comfortably fit into the new space?

Transportation – This is a key element in choosing where you will live. What’s traffic like around the new place? How about bus or taxi service? Does the new place offer shuttle service to Target, the grocery store or your doctor? If you choose to stop driving, how will you get around?

Your changing health – The housing that works well for you now may not be a good fit if your health changes. Plan ahead. Make sure your home is accessible and that you can navigate the bath, bedroom, kitchen and other essential living areas while you’re recovering from knee surgery, your vision dims or some other health condition changes your physical abilities.

Meaningful activities and causes – Here’s where choosing the right neighborhood and the right neighbors comes in. Can you find bridge partners, people of similar interests, buddies to attend band concerts in the park? Life is richer when you surround yourself with people who spark your interest in new activities or join you in ones you’ve loved for years.

Condos, apartments, houses, communes? – Various kinds of collective living arrangements are popping up around the country. The obvious choices are apartments, houses, condos or town homes, but some people are searching for new kinds of housing. Some observers like Joelyn Malone, a Minnesota champion of “cohousing” (http:cohousing.org), are waiting to see if the Flower Children from the 1960s rediscover communal living. Various kinds of collective living arrangements are popping up elsewhere. Some groups help women link together to share housing, but in the meantime, this year’s Twin Cities Senior Housing Guide, 651-690-3141,  can help you sort through the different types of current housing. Then it’s your job to see what style might best fit the way your want to live, including how you will age.

Warren Wolfe is currently retired. During his career he was a staff writer at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis where he covered issues of aging for 10 years. He joined the newspaper in 1970, and was a reporter, a copy editor and an assistant city editor. He received several state and national reporting awards. Previous to the Star Tribune, he was a reporter and news editor at the Red Wing (MN) Republican Eagle. He loves reading, writing, the arts, travel, cats and fly fishing. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.