DESIGN FOR LIVING

STAIRWAYS: WHAT GOES UP MUST COME DOWN

2013-06-25T18:00:00Z 2013-08-01T13:36:04Z STAIRWAYS: WHAT GOES UP MUST COME DOWNBy Pat Colander nwitimes.com
June 25, 2013 6:00 pm  • 

My mother, who is now almost 80 years old, bought a two-bedroom condominium in south suburban Chicago about 8 years ago,. When condo shopping she had several deal-breaking criteria which stemmed from the fact that this would be the last time she moved. She would go out feet first she pronounced defiantly though in different terms—my mother being prone to proclamations about what is going to happen to her in the coming years—whether there is anyone willing to argue with her or not. No one was. Her new condo is on the ground floor, just where she wanted to be. She had enough of climbing stairs in her last two homes, the most recent a townhouse with a carpeted staircase.

My mother wasn't the only widow I knew who had insisted on the no stairs option, just the most recent. My grandmother, who died at the age of 87, had a place on the ground floor where she lived alone for many years until she died in a nearby hospital after less than a week when hospitalized with pneumonia.Widows in their 80s usually have experience with the results of falling that make them cautious and fearful of breaking their hips. AARP quoting The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), studied the hip fracture phenomenon in 2009 and concluded of the 300,000 Americans over 65 who will fracture their hip in a given year, many will have a “significant loss of function.” Ninety percent will need help on the stairs, over half will not be able to go to the bathroom or get up from a chair by themselves. Oh, I almost forgot 20-30 percent of the over-65 hipbreakers die within 12 months of the fracture. And so the 80+year-olds I know avoid stairs, ice and snow and anything that might present a danger of tripping and falling.

And who could blame them? Hip rehab is a drag, especially if you are not used to being told what to do. I have yet to find any fiercely independent relative willingly cede control to a professional caregiver who just might have insight into the most expedient way of mending a broken bone. Many parents of Baby Boomers have not yet fully realized that their children are completely disobedient.

I live in a tri-level with two two steep staircases of 15 steps each. I am as stubborn as my mother in my own way. When my husband and I first moved into our house, we had to get used to climbing a lot of stairs. (Before we moved, we lived in a building with an elevator that we used frequently even though we were only four or five levels up.) The last time I climbed a lot of stairs on a regular basis was when I was a single mother working the night shift and working out on a Stairmaster, a form of exercise recommended to me by a 25-year-old colleague as a great way to lose a lot of weight fast. She was right about that, but I couldn't take the Stairmaster on a regular basis after a couple of years.

Awhile back I fantasized about an elevator, mostly for myself as a planned guarantee that I will always be able to live in my house. (There was a period in recent memory when I moved four times in a year—something that happens when you get remarried, consolidate and empty out your nest. If I never have to move again, I'm fine with that.) But I'm noticing how much you can improve your balance with time on the treadmill. After recently tracking the exercise I get doing the laundry, retrieving my phone, lugging groceries up to the third floor kitchen or just generally running up and down the stairs I'm thinking this is not a bad way to stay flexible. With a right-sized attitude, forgetting something downstairs is not a tragedy, it's an opportunity to run down the stairs again.

A couple of years ago I came across an architecture book by Wid Chapman and Jeffrey R. Rosenfeld called Unassisted Living: Ageless Homes for Later in Life (Monacelli Press, Random House) that tended to support my view that with a few minor adjustments I could continue living in my house indefinitely. The marketing theory behind the book was simple. In 2011, the first wave of Baby Boomers turned 65. Basically this flow of people into the 65-plus market will continue growing at the rate of about 10,000 per day for the next 16 years. By the time those of us born in 1964 — demographer's official end for the boom comes in 2029 — 51 million boomers will have passed through into late middle age.

As the authors say in their introduction, “the most interesting news is that many hippies-turned-boomers continue to flaunt authority, even in their early sixties. Our sample of homeowners and homebuyers confirms that they are planning to install grab bars in bathrooms and to retrofit kitchens to make the safer and more compact—sensible decisions for those growing older. But many in the same group also expect to be aging in houses with steep, switchback stairways.” Most of the beautifully photographed houses and floor plans have at least one more level above ground.

The New Orleans section is particularly fascinating because the houses have extra long staircases inside and out. The better for family stoop-sitting to watch the world go by, a pastime that was a regular feature of our grandparents' lives even in Chicago. I can clearly remember sitting on the front steps of my grandparent's home on Creiger, talking with my great grandmother's husband or boyfriend Deuce, who was an outfielder for the Chicago White Sox for a few summers. Although it wasn't much of a job at that time. He must have run out of people to talk to if he was bothering with me. I remember being slightly peeved when I was torn away from whatever important playing I was doing messing around in the dirt under the porch.

My mother of course, does not support my staircases. This was reinforced when she had started up the stairs by herself and fell—the noise was worse than the fall thank goodness—at the landing where there is no bannister bridging to the bannister of the second staircase. It is an engineering challenge that I may have to look at sooner rather than later. Meanwhile, helping my mother up and down the stairs is a great subtle reminder that I need to keep on climbing as much as possible. Watch my footwear and avoiding accidental spills, practicing balance.

I am too busy to go around breaking my hips.

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