How can older Vermonters ‘age in place’?
Most older Vermonters would rather stay in their homes than move to a nursing home or assisted living facility. Brave Little State surveys the obstacles to — and strategies for — aging in place.
Note: Our show is made for the ear. We recommend listening to the audio above if you're able! But we also provide a written version here.
We’ve been hearing a lot about the housing shortage in Vermont, and how hard it is for people to find an apartment or buy homes right now. (Look no further than this episode, which we released a few months ago.)
Today, though, we’re going to flip that scenario.
Imagine that you’ve not only found your dream house, but you’ve lived in it for years and made it exactly how you want it. Maybe it’s even paid off.
Now, as you get older and more comfortable in your house, the looming question becomes ... How long can you stay there?
I heard from a lot of people thinking about this very topic.
People like Joanne Van Deusen of Manchester, Vermont, who told me she’d recently bought a new roof. “I love my house; I don't really want to sell," she said. "But I am going to be 78 next month, and I think, ‘How on earth am I going to manage all of this in a few years?’”
And Dorothy Delaney of Hinesburg: “Well, I get offers, like, 'Come out to Seattle and you can live in our basement, Mom.' You know, and I'm like, I don't want to live in a basement in Seattle.”
Sonja Hakala lives in West Hartford, and said friends of hers seem to be buzzing about whether their homes will work as they get older: “You know, we need to be in a place that is super insulated, we need to be in a place where we don't have to use wood and wood stoves. We need to move; we need to be in closer; we need to have transportation.”
“It’s scary," admitted Delaney. "It's a little frightening."
“It's a major concern, and all of my friends are feeling the same way,” said Van Deusen.
Earlier this year, I changed my reporting beat at VPR to cover issues affecting older Vermonters. So when I was on deck to report this episode, Brave Little State actually curated a voting round specifically to tackle a question about aging.
That’s the way Brave Little State does it. You submit your questions about Vermont. Then, we hold a public voting round, where you decide which question we should tackle next. Then we do our best to find the answer, with your help — it's "people-powered journalism" in action.
Today's winning question, about aging in place? It hit a nerve.
It came from Darlene Furey of Marshfield, She wanted to know: "How can older Vermonters 'age in place' as taxes increase and incomes become fixed?”
“Aging in place” is the idea of growing old in your own home, instead of moving into a nursing home or assisted living facility. According to surveys, most people would prefer this, which is not surprising. But how to do it remains a big worry for many older Vermonters.
And OK, loyal BLS fans, some of you may be thinking, 'Man, this episode is for old people!' (Cue the Lawrence Welk music and start the bubble machine.)
You may be years away from dealing with any of this stuff, but you might want to share this episode with your parents or grandparents or that nice older couple down the street. And I hate to break it to you, but we’ll all be old one day — if we’re lucky.
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'I’d love to stay here. But I can’t.'
I wasn’t able to reach the person who submitted today’s winning-question. I’m told by the BLS team that it happens. But I did connect with Dorothy Delaney, who lives in Hinesburg.
She’s a registered nurse and midwife who works full time. But she’d really like to slow down. “I'm now at the crucial age of stepping off the treadmill,” Delaney told me. “But I’m very trepidatious about doing that.”
Delaney is 70, expects to rely heavily on Social Security and says she’s anxious about growing old in Vermont because of her financial situation.
“As long as I'm able-bodied, I'm not afraid. But I have to be more realistic. I can’t afford what I’d like," Delaney told me. “Ideally, I’d like a little cabin out in the woods, that’s not too far from a good road, and just lead a quiet, contemplative life. But I also know, being a nurse, that these little things just creep up on you.”
Most older Vermonters rely heavily on Social Security. And like Delaney, most would rather grow old in their homes versus in a nursing home or assisted living community.
Delaney has an interesting backstory — one that’s made it harder for her to save for retirement. She spent 20 years working in several African countries, starting as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger. She met her husband in Africa, but he died in the late 1980s, and she’s been single ever since, raising four kids and helping them through college.
The good news is that she’s been able to live in the Hinesburg home her parents left her. The bad news is that she hasn’t hasn’t been able to save as much as she’d like for retirement, which is why she’s still working full-time and worrying about the future.
“A house, as you know, requires upkeep,” said Delaney. “I had a roof put on that wiped my household reserve out. And then I had a plumbing problem. And I had to use credit cards for that. And that's not comfortable. And I'm working now, so I can pay that credit card off rather easily.
"But things are going to come up, and I don't know how I'd handle that. I really don't. So the reality is, yes, I like where I live, I’d love to stay here. But I can’t. I know I can’t.”
The Community of Vermont Elders
Ruby Baker is someone who thinks a lot about this issue.
Baker is the executive Director of COVE, the Community of Vermont Elders. It's a nonprofit that advocates for older Vermonters, a group that’s growing rapidly in our state. In fact, Baker says when it comes to the percentage of residents over 65, Vermont is on track to be the oldest state in the nation by 2030.
“It's so complicated, right? When we are thinking about aging in place, we think about, what does an older person want as they grow older," said Baker. "And what can they afford — which is what you are getting at with [the question about] rising taxes and fixed incomes. And then completely aside from what they can afford, and what they want, what will be possible?”
In light of that, this piece is going to feature a lot of tips and resources. Like the handy “aging-in-Vermont” resource guide that COVE put together.
Baker said the idea is to make sure Vermonters get all the information they need to make healthy, sustainable choices as they grow older: “Those decisions that you make before you are in crisis can go a long way towards your ability to age in your own home, and be safe."
Living on a fixed income
One of the key elements of today’s winning question is how to live on a fixed income while dealing with rising taxes.
Many Vermonters, including many retirees, get help with property taxes through the state’s income sensitivity credit. It allows people who make up to about $137,000 to pay their property taxes based on their income.
Dorothy Delaney, the former Peace Corps volunteer and nurse who’s trying to figure out when to retire, says that program helps with her property taxes — but she’s also worried about her income taxes.
“My old college roommate pointed out to me — we were talking about Social Security, [and] she lives in Florida — and she goes, 'Well, at least I live in a state that doesn't tax, Social Security.' And I said, 'What do you mean?'”
Vermont is one of only 13 states that taxes Social Security — and last year, the personal finance publication Kiplinger cited our brave little state among the 10 least tax-friendly for retirees.
“I wasn't expecting that," said Delaney. "I'm looking at how much I'm going to get from Social Security, and I'm going, why is that taxed? It doesn't make sense to me.”
We’re not going to provide financial advice in this episode, but when it comes to Social Security, a lot of older Vermonters rely on it — and like Delaney, I had no idea Vermont taxed it.
Right now lawmakers in Montpelier are discussing various proposals to change the way it’s taxed. But it’s confusing, so I reached out to Bob Kinzel, VPR’s Statehouse reporter and self-proclaimed tax policy nerd, to help clarify things.
I told Bob about Dorothy Delaney’s question and how I’d gotten really confused when I started reading up on Social Security and the way it’s currently taxed in Vermont.
“I get it! I had to go through this. I had to sit down with the head of the House Ways and Means Committee twice," Bob said. "So I think I got it straight.”
(I love Bob.)
“So we should start off by saying that everybody in the state of Vermont who gets Social Security, the first 15% of their benefits are not taxed whatsoever,” he explained.
But after that, it gets more complicated.
“The way that Vermont then taxes the remaining 85% is based on the person's adjusted gross income. So let's look at an individual filer. If an individual person has an income of up to $45,000, so that's their Social Security income, and maybe some other retirement income that they have, but they have $45,000 or less, they pay no taxes on their Social Security. Zero, none.”
And Bob says half of all Social Security recipients in Vermont — about 40,000 people — are in this no-tax category.
“Now, if they have an income between $45,000 and $55,000, they pay on about half of their Social Security. And if that individual has an income above $55,000, then they only get that first 15% from the federal deduction, they have to pay taxes on the remaining 85%. So it's all based on income. And the numbers I gave you just now were for an individual. For joint filers, it's a higher number.”
Currently, in the Statehouse, there’s a push to raise those exemption levels and Bob says two proposals are on the table.
The first is Gov. Phil Scott's. Bob says the governor would like to raise the income threshold for individuals to $75,000 a year and bump it up to $90,000 a year for joint filers. That’s a $30,000 jump.
“Now, this would encompass a lot of people, [and] it's expected to cost about $35 million a year in the current year. And because Vermont's population of people over 65 is growing so fast, the price tag for the governor's program mushrooms to $40, $45, $50, $55 million in the next couple of years.”
So, the governor’s proposal would be good news for seniors. But it would be pricey.
Bob says there’s a more modest proposal coming out of the House. A $5,000 bump instead of a $30,000 one. The House wants to beef up the state’s child tax credit instead. Bob says both of these proposals would be funded by a surplus in the state's general fund.
As to where it’s going to come down in Montpelier? At this point, Bob thinks the vote will likely favor the House proposal.
“I mean, I could see the threshold being raised a little bit, [but] they are not going to go to the governor's level. They [House members] feel very strongly about this child tax credit, and the Senate will weigh in on that in the next couple of weeks. But essentially there is a real philosophical difference about how the surplus money will be spent.”
'You dial down your wants.'
Even if you feel like you’ve dialed in your finances and will do OK on a fixed income, you still might worry about the changes you’ll have to make as you get older.
Sonja Hakala and her husband Jay Davis live in a small cedar shingle house in West Hartford. It’s right on the White River and they’ve been there almost 30 years.
“My husband's one of those people — I think he must have been a beaver in another life, because he builds and rebuilds everything," Hakala says. "So over the course of that time, he has rebuilt and renovated our house, and we've added outbuildings. So we've really made it ours.”
But now that everything is just the way they want it, she says suddenly it seems like she and her husband are having second thoughts:
“This kind of started with, you know, I'm going to be 72 years old in May.”
The couple started to worry that their home might not work as well for them as they got older. Did they need to replace their bathtub with a shower, install more handrails or take more drastic action?
“My husband and I have had this discussion literally for the last three or four years very seriously," Hakala says. "Talking about, do we sell? Do we go someplace else? Do we live in an apartment somewhere?”
Hakala says she and her husband worked hard to plan for old age financially — getting rid of debt before they retired. She says that's made it easier for them to live on their fixed incomes, even with Vermont's taxes.
“You know, you get conservative. I think that you cut back on your needs," she says. "I look at my closet, and I say, I don't really need anything new except for maybe a pair of boots. And that's kind of the way it goes. I think you dial down your wants.”
But hearing friends talk of moving to retirement communities or downsizing has made the couple uneasy.
“And I thought, really, wait a second, I need to step back and think about this," Hakala says. "By husband Jay and I worked really hard to make our house the way we want it. Do we really need to move?”
Hakala tells me about an aunt and uncle of hers who lived in Central Massachusetts, where she grew up. She’s been thinking about them a lot.
“They lived in the same house that they built from the day they got married until literally just about the day they died. It was completely paid for. They knew where everything was. It was theirs, set up the way they want it. And everybody says, ‘Oh gosh, it's too bad. You know, he fell on the stairs. And then he died.’ Yeah, well, he fell on the stairs. He was like, 92, and he died in hospital three days later. Is that aging in place? Yeah! I think it is.”
Dying in your home at 92? Actually, that doesn't sound too bad to me either. But falling down your stairs is a preventable accident. It's why Ruby Baker and other advocates for seniors say it's important to be proactive and not wait until you or your partner has a stroke, gets sick, can't drive ... or, yeah, falls down the stairs.
When I ask Baker when people should start thinking about all of this age-in-place stuff, she doesn’t hesitate with her answer:
Creating a plan
Every expert I spoke to, from those who run senior centers and area agencies on aging to folks at AARP, said that if you want to age in place, create a plan.
There’s a ton of information online about this. But I’ll hit the high points. There are basically three main parts of any good plan to age in place: your house, your documents and your finances.
For starters, let’s talk about your house. You may already know this, but as you get older? Falls are bad. So, here are some tips that experts say can help prevent you from falling at home:
- If you’ve got steps leading up to your front door (and just about every house in Vermont does) consider replacing them with a ramp.
- Inside your house, make sure any stairways or dark hallways are well lit, especially your path to the bathroom. Nightlights can help with this, and they’re cheap.
- Consider replacing door knobs with lever handles — they’re much easier to use.
- Microwave ovens are better on a countertop than over the stove.
- Area rugs and dog toys on the floor: Watch out, they’re trip hazards.
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Then there’s your bathroom. This room is really important, because the floor can get wet and falls there are common.
- Think about replacing your bathtub with a shower stall.
- Make sure you have plenty of grab bars, and that your bathroom is big enough to accommodate a wheelchair or walker.
These types of changes can be really expensive. But they can also be a godsend: When my mom had double knee replacement surgery a couple years ago and stayed with me, having a bathroom large enough for her walker was key.
Of course, many of these changes are reliant on finding a contractor to do the work — which is tough right now. So again: Planning ahead is wise.
Now, let’s talk about the kinds of documents you should have on hand. No matter where you end up living — at home or in a nursing home — these documents are important.
- Everyone should have a will.
- You should have a power of attorney for health care and a separate one for finances — these are people who can make health care and financial decisions on your behalf if you can’t.
- You should also have an advance directive — a signed statement you share with your doctor and caregivers regarding how you want to be treated medically should you be unable to communicate your wishes.
You may be thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve got those!’ But … Are you sure?
I did my will back when my kids were first born, and they’re in their twenties now. While reporting this episode, I learned that it’s important to go back and review these documents every five years, because things change. And talk them over with your family, so you're all on the same page.
I’m going to throw in a personal story here. My husband is a primary care physician, and about 15 years ago, while we were on a family reunion-type vacation with my parents and his parents and our siblings, my husband pulled out blank advance directive forms that we all filled out together over beers.
It was a little strange. But it actually worked great, because we were all in a good mood, we were relaxed, and we had the time we needed to talk over what we all wanted or didn’t want, as well as what we were afraid of. So by the end of the vacation we were all on the same page — and had the signed documents to prove it. And three years later, when my dad had a fatal stroke, it made a difference.
So: Plan, talk, review.
What’s it gonna cost?
Now that your bathroom is nice and large, and all your documents are in place, the next step is to understand how much you might have to spend for help when you need it. If you break your hip, how much will it cost to hire a housekeeper or a home health care aid?
I found a cool online calculator that can help with this, so I figured I’d show it to my producer Josh. Below is a short transcript of us checking it out together.
Nina: So, I want you to try to Google this nifty calculator. So to do that, go to AARP Long-Term Care Cost Calculator – it’s a mouthful.
Josh: I have to say, Nina, this is my first foray into the AARP website.
Nina: Welcome into the dark side, Josh. It’s coming! OK, so, if you see down below your zip code, that kinda helps this calculator figure out cost ratios in your area, it’s gonna ask you about things like how many hours a week you might need a homemaker or a personal care service provider: somebody to come in, maybe, and make you a meal or clean, maybe do yard work. So punch in a number there. Take a guess.
Josh: Alright, so I’ll go pretty conservative here. I’ll say eight hours a week, a little more than an hour a day.
Nina: Perfect. Now right underneath that is another sliding scale. And you can slide that for how many hours you might need a home health aide. So a home health aide might be somebody that comes in, say you’ve broken a hip and you need help taking a shower or getting dressed, that kind of thing.
Josh: OK, I think I’ll go conservative on that too and just match it up. Eight hours a week.
Nina: And then the final sliding scale on that page plugs in hours each week when you might need adult day care. And that’s something I’ve heard couples talk about, where the wife might be caring for a husband who’s got dementia. And so twice a week, that husband might spend some time in adult daycare to give the wife a break.
Josh: OK, I’ll go two days a week.
Nina: So at the bottom you should have a monthly cost for all of the hours you just plugged in. What do you have?
Josh: Geez, yeah. So I’m seeing $3,180 a month.
Josh: That is quite a hefty sum.
A big caveat when we talk about growing old in our homes is the fact that the people who do this type of work are in very short supply. Everyone in Vermont who works with the elderly that I spoke to called the shortage of home health care workers a crisis. In fact, some people can’t age in place, because when they need help in their home to bathe or get dressed or have somebody cook a meal, there’s no one available to do that.
And yet, the cost of residential care in a nursing home or assisted living? It’s even scarier. When Josh ran the numbers for his part of the state, the AARP Long-Term Care Cost Calculator calculated more than $5,000 a month for assisted living and over $10,000 a month to live in a private nursing home.
Support at home
The organization SASH, which stands for Support and Services at Home, is currently helping about 5,000 Vermonters age in place. It’s a program that links health care and other services mostly to affordable housing complexes.
"One of the things I tell our SASH coordinators is, and initially it was very hard for them to hear, but you know, if someone passes away in one of our apartments, for example, of natural causes, that's a success," says Kevin Loso, CEO of the Rutland Housing Authority, which oversees SASH in Rutland County. "It means that we've managed to keep them in their home, where they wanted to be right up until the end.”
Loso says case managers work one-on-one with Vermonters on Medicare to help them stay in their homes safely. They do this by monitoring chronic diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure, and helping with transitions between hospital visits and short-term nursing home stays.
“So, we're able to provide that little extra support that makes a difference between staying in their home or going to some higher level of care," he says.
SASH originated in Vermont, and it’s been so successful that other states have copied it.
Another option for aging in place? Consider a roommate.
If you have a larger house and aren’t ready to downsize, renting out a spare bedroom to a younger person looking for housing can make all the difference. An organization called HomeShare Vermont has been helping facilitate these types of arrangements for decades in northeastern and central Vermont.
The concept is pretty straightforward: A person offers a private bedroom and shared common space in exchange for rent, help around the house or a combination of the two.
HomeShare Vermont Director Kirby Dunn says, “It not only helps people financially, or helps people be able to stay in their home where they want to be, it [also] has all sorts of other benefits.”
For instance, Dunn says they track a lot of data among participants, “And ... people are happier, they feel safer, they're sleeping better, they're eating better, just by having someone live with them.”
Dunn says 92 Vermonters are doing this right now through their program, and the average age of participants is 72.
Neighbor to Neighbor
If you don’t like the idea of a stranger moving in, there are lots of groups that can help you find people who’ll just come over occasionally to help you shop or get to a doctor’s appointment.
Suzie Eisinger heads up a nonprofit in Manchester that does this called Neighbor to Neighbor. It’s a volunteer-based organization that provides non-medical help to older Vermonters and those with disabilities.
Eisinger drove me to meet a client they’d recently begun working with. A neat sidewalk leads up to a small, two story home.
Joanne Van Deusen answers the door. She’s petite with short brown hair and cheery red lipstick. She’s wearing a down vest and floral scarf and she walks us through her kitchen.
The house is cozy, with wood floors and a beamed ceiling. It was built in 1912, and there’s a fireplace, plenty of windows and a three-season porch off the front door that Van Deusen says is a favorite spot: “I love it. When the weather is nice and you can sit out there. It gets the afternoon sun, and there's something ... It's before the gloaming and warm enough and sunny enough that it just gives you good feelings.”
Van Deusen lives here alone, and she’ll be 78 next month. She’s kind of a perfect example of when the rubber meets the road when it comes to aging in place. Because while she’s always been able to handle things, recent health problems have really thrown her for a loop.
“And I have asked my friends to help me for 10 months. And I thought, 'I can’t ask once more.' It's hard to ask for help. You don't want to," she says. "After you've taken care of yourself for years and years, to suddenly not be able to drive, not be able to get a meal, not be able to easily walk upstairs ... It's devastating.”
A friend told her about Neighbor to Neighbor, and she admits it took her a while to call: “I was a little nervous. I thought, 'What if I don't qualify?' And I thought, maybe I'm asking too much, because I have a lot of appointments coming up.”
But it’s worked out well, and Suzie Eisinger says Van Deusen is now one of about 70 clients in the program: “We provide transportation to shopping, errands, medical appointments and other appointments. And it's not just in the area. I mean, you may have somebody that lives in Dorset or Arlington and they need to get down to a doctor's appointment in Albany or they may need to get to a place in Bennington.”
Neighbor to Neighbor’s services are free, provided by volunteers in the Manchester area and paid for with a combination of grants, local funding, private donations and help from faith-based groups.
This kind of free help can play a big role in helping older Vermonters stay in their homes as long as possible. And one expert I spoke to said there are about 150 of these types of organizations across the state.
To find that kind of help near you, call Vermont’s Senior Help Line. It’ll route your call to one of the state’s five area Agencies on Aging. The Senior Help Line number is: 800-642-5119. Or, you can reach out to one of the 42 senior centers that operate in Vermont.
If you don’t know if your community has a senior center, call your town clerk or dial 2-1-1 Vermont’s information line.
For 82-year-old Ada Pezzetti, attending her local senior center in Rutland has helped her age in place while she cares for her husband.
“I not only do yoga here on Fridays, I also do the bone builders class on Mondays and Wednesdays," she says. "And that has really been a godsend, and has kept me limber and strong. I just am a great believer that the longer a person keeps moving, the better off they are health-wise — mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually.”
Senior centers like this are helping older Vermonters across the state stay fit with free or low-cost exercise classes, and daily luncheons provide a place for seniors to connect, socialize and get a balanced meal.
Thirty miles east of Rutland in Woodstock, Deanna Jones directs the Thompson Senior Center. She also heads the Vermont Association of Senior Centers and Meal Providers.
“It struck me this week, I had an advisory meeting of our participants at the center, and one of the couples commented that they've planned their days around being here for lunch, because it is their main meal of the day," she told me. "And dinner might be crackers and apples and cheese, but they're really not grocery shopping in a significant way, like they were before they came here.”
The Thompson Senior Center serves lunch Monday through Friday with a suggested donation of five dollars; Jones says people pay whatever they can. The center serves even more seniors delivering Meals on Wheels.
“We've seen significant increases," Jones says of the meal program. "I just pulled numbers from 10 years ago in 2012, [when] we delivered about 5,800 Meals on Wheels. And in 2022, we've already served almost that many meals. And if I project that for a full year, it's over 14,000 meals ... That’s really significant growth, and that's just our little region of Woodstock, Pomfret, Barnard and Bridgewater.”
It’s ironic that everything that makes aging in Vermont more difficult — the dirt roads, cold weather and remote, rural communities — may also be part of the answer to this episode’s core question. Because in Vermont, neighbors are used to looking after neighbors, and hundreds, if not thousands, of people volunteer every day to help their older neighbors with rides, meals, and social networks.
But it seems like kind of a patchwork solution. Especially considering how quickly Vermont’s population is aging.
It makes me think of something Ann Jarrosak of Wallingford told me last year, when I ran into her at Rutland’s Senior Center. It was a kind of warning about what we may all be up against:
“I’m right in the middle of the baby boomers at 65 years old,” Jarrosak told me. “And society better get ready to take care of us, 'cuz we’re coming in droves. Every place in the U.S. is going to be overloaded with people that can’t do for themselves.
"And they need help from society not on a once- or twice-a-week basis, but all the time. We’re coming! We’re coming, we boomers.”
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Nina Keck reported this episode, with mix and sound design by Josh Crane. Additional production and editing from the Brave Little State team: Angela Evancie, Myra Flynn and Josh Crane. Ty Gibbons composed our theme music; other music by Blue Dot Sessions.
If you have a question you want us to tackle in an upcoming episode, ask it at bravelittlestate.org. If you have story tips for Nina as she continues covering aging in Vermont, you can leave her a voicemail at: 802-552-8899, or send a letter addressed to: PO Box 321 Pittsford, Vermont 05763.
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