As the number of American seniors increases, more are turning to medical devices and assistance from caregivers to help them live independently, a movement called aging in place.

The number of American seniors is expected to reach 70 million by the year 2030, according to the U.S. Census. With the help of medical devices, technology, and assistance from other people, this growing segment of the American population is already proving that they can retain some level of independence.

“As boomers are getting older, the word ‘elderly’ is probably not going to be embraced by them all that gracefully, because they’re talking about themselves,” says Mary A. Languirand, Ph.D., co-author of How to Age in Place.

The aging in place movement promotes senior self-reliance, and can mean continuing to live in one’s own home or moving into a quasi-independent assisted living community.

Languirand says that seniors should be proactive about planning for retirement, including “thinking about how they might need to change their lives or their environments in order to ensure that they’re going to be able to retire and live comfortably where they want to live and be doing what they want to be doing.”

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Even with good planning for retirement, two-thirds of older adults still need some form of assistance to go about their daily lives, according to a new study by University of Michigan researchers published today in the American Journal of Public Health.

The need for assistance, however, varies by activity. In the study, which focused on over 8,000 older men and women, 90 percent of seniors were able to eat on their own, but only 54 percent could bathe without help.

Similarly, independence decreases as people age. On average, 31 percent of people in the study could carry out all activities independently. For people 90 years or older, this dropped to four percent.

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While seniors commonly use devices like canes and scooters, new technologies are being geared toward ensuring their safety as they continue to live on their own.

For example, personal medical alert systems allow seniors to summon help quickly should they fall or need medical attention.

For seniors who are comfortable with the loss of privacy, video monitoring allows people to keep an eye on older family members over the internet, a service that is fast increasing in demand as families spread out geographically.

Other systems go one step further, using video or wireless networks to automatically detect when a person has fallen and alert first responders. Even smartphones are being adapted to aid seniors with everyday tasks, such as prompting them to take medications or show up for appointments.

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A key component of aging in place is adjusting the space you call home.

“It’s amazing how many homes are not all that easily accessible if you have to depend on something like a walker or a wheelchair in order to get around,” says Languirand.

One option is to design a new home with your physical limitations in mind, something that can be done as part of early retirement planning. This includes one-floor designs that allow for easier movement within the home, or even chairlifts or elevators to go along with traditional stairs.

If that isn’t financially feasible, home design specialists can help you retrofit an existing house for improved mobility and safety.

In the University of Michigan study, researchers found that six percent of seniors adjusted to their homes’ limitations by altering their habits, such as going outside or bathing less often. Adapting the home for safety and ease of use can help people retain their independence longer.

“Kitchens and bathrooms are particularly risky places,” says Languirand, “because as you age the likelihood of falls increases, and those are the places you are likeliest to fall.”

Kitchens can be redesigned to allow seniors to cook or access all of their cabinets from a wheelchair. Bathrooms may include roll-in or seat showers, to allow older people to bathe themselves.

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Technology will continue to play an important role for the aging in place movement, but help from caregivers will also remain essential for many seniors.

In the University of Michigan study, nearly 80 percent of seniors said they were able to manage on their own without assistance from others. The rest, however, count on regular visits from home caregivers like Tanya Jennings, who works out of Caring Senior Service’s Amarillo, Tex. office.

In her line of work, caring means more than the usual help with meal preparation, showers, and housecleaning.

“We provide pretty much whatever they need,” says Jennings. “If they need errands done, if they want to go shopping, we provide that. It just depends upon the individual.”

For many, something as simple as a weekly trip to the mall can mean the difference between living on their own and having to move into an assisted living facility. It also greatly impacts their quality of life.

“I feel like when they live in their home, they still have that independence. They still have that desire to go on and live,” says Jennings. “I also think it’s very important that they are able to keep their pets, because a lot of times their pets are the only thing they have left.”

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While some people may resist relying on walkers or wheelchairs, the University of Michigan study found that these devices help with more than just mobility and safety. Seniors who used devices to help them participate in daily activities that they enjoyed were just as happy as those who could do without the extra help.

Languirand, who is a big proponent of being proactive, emphasizes that aging in place means choosing the life that you want for retirement.

“This is your last, best chance to pursue your dreams,” she says, “so it’s always a good idea to invest where your heart is.”

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