Change the Climate … of Your House!

The topic of climate change in Houston has been known to cause some ‘heated’ discussions on both sides of the issue, but what does this really have to do with you if you are, say, nearing retirement and considering options for the next phase of your life? Like the “big picture” topic of climate change, thinking about getting older in your home is not something that makes you or anyone else happy. Just the opposite – it brings on fear of the future. Have you ever said, or even thought, the following?

“It’s easier to stay in this house the way it is and do nothing, than to even think about getting older and being able to function here in 20 years.”

As an architect, I look at problems differently. That’s why I’m able to help people find creative ways to adapt their home for the future.  But YOU are the one who needs to take the first step and that’s hard with a topic so connected to worry, fear and dread. It might even be more palatable to talk about that big picture topic of climate change than to think about how your life might change in 10 or 20 years! Don’t worry, there is actually something to learn from the global topic of climate change that can help us when it comes to aging in place …

  1. The word “climate” has a lot of surprising synonyms that we NEVER hear in connection with global climate change, for example: mood, spirit and ambiance. How do you want to FEEL in your home? What is the mood and spirit with which you want to live the rest of your life? What sort of ambiance do you want? Now, picture that in your mind!
  2. Just as with the big picture topic of climate change, if you plan ahead, you can be prepared. As architects we can offer other options and possibilities so that your home continues to provide a climate you enjoy being in.
  3. Let’s acknowledge that aging in place seems like a daunting problem, and you don’t want to think about it until you absolutely have to, but as with global climate change, time only makes it an even bigger problem.
  4. Nobody wants options forced upon them — “do this or there will be gloom and doom!” — and that is a big part of the resistance to climate change discussions, especially in the political arena. But as specialists in aging in place and invisible design, we can help you change the conversation. What if you intentionally change your climate, in a way that you are able to better enjoy and maintain your personal environment and your lifestyle?
  5. Rather than approaching the topic of climate change as “This is what we are losing…”, consider: What might be gained by a team of people working together over time? Thinking this way brings a positive spirit, whether you are talking about the planet or your neighborhood or your home. If you make intentional, incremental changes to adapt to different aspects of your lifestyle, you will avoid a cataclysmic event. And you won’t be losing anything. With proper planning, you will actually ADD value to your home, growing what is considered by most people to be their largest investment. Make these changes gradually, with intention and a positive mindset. Maintain your quality of life. The result is a win-win: you get functionality for when you need it combined withthe aesthetics and style that reflect how you live and what you love.
  6. As with global climate change, this topic is also largely about energy. One of the climate synonyms, “ambiance,” translates as an inner glow — it’s about yourlife and the glow of your It’s your own energy and attitude toward life, your excitement put into physical form, creating an environment that reflects the way you want to live and makes it possible to continue doing what you love with ease.
  7. Just like the big issue of climate change, it’s easier to continue with things as they are and NOT take the first step toward living differently. But there are SO MANY EASY THINGS you can do now to make your life better in the future. We can help. Start by asking yourself, what makes you glow? I’d love to hear your answer, because that answer is the first step on the roadmap to creating the best solutions for your future.

Finally, much like global climate change, you may feel quite comfortable in your home today, even knowing that a storm could be on the horizon. But like everyone else, you are getting older. Maybe you are even thinking about having an aging parent move in with you. Isn’t it time to consider changing the climate of your life? I understand – you don’t want to completely disrupt your household – logistically, emotionally or financially. You may love the atmosphere just the way it is. But your home’s function can affect your mood and dictate your daily activities. Its functionality (or lack of) will mandate, “This is how you feel.” Think about how you would feel if you were unable to enjoy your favorite pastime or forced to limit your social activities with family and friends.  Then, let’s have our own discussion about climate change … today.

Getting Realistic About Retirement

The following article by Lisa Bixler originally appeared in Prime Women magazine.

Apparently, the last week of October has been designated National Retirement Security Week. For many women, retirement and security are thought of in separate contexts… as nurturers, our instinct is often to direct our energy and resources in ways that make our loved ones feel secure, even if at our own expense.

Discussions about retirement planning tend to center around whether we will live near the kids, where we will travel, or how to find our new ‘purpose. Many of us were taught that it’s not polite to talk about money. Combine that with a history of unequal pay and the fact that most women adjust their career paths at some point around family life, it’s no surprise our IRAs and 401Ks fall short.

Although we can’t change our past, we can draw on the resilience that helped us through it to successfully define and achieve our own style of retirement. No two households are exactly alike, and the same can be said for people’s retirement planning. For this reason, when examining your own, start with a holistic approach based on your particular situation. To simplify, break retirement planning down into 3 general categories: Home, Health and Hobbies.

The Three H’s


Consider where you want to live over the next 5, 10, and 20+ years…

Mother and Daughter at HomeWill you stay in your current community, relocate to be closer to the grandkids or seasonally divide your time between two locations? Is there the possibility of an aging parent moving in with you? If you are thinking about moving to a new area, would there be a cost of living adjustment compared to where you are living now?

If your health changes at some point and you require extra care, would you consider moving in with your adult children or relocating to assisted living? If you’d prefer to stay in your current home and hire a caregiver, what steps might you have to take sooner rather than later so that your home can meet your future needs? If you’re deciding between locations, take a look at AARP’s livability index, which evaluates neighborhoods and communities based on the various categories that impact our lives most.


Retirement PlanAccording to HealthView Services, a leading producer of healthcare cost projection software, the average healthy 65-year-old couple will spend $281,847 in today’s dollars on lifetime Medicare and supplemental insurance premiums. When dental, hearing, vision and all other out-of-pocket expenses are calculated, the total estimate for healthcare spending in retirement jumps to $363,946, or $537,334 future value. For a 55-year old couple retiring in 10 years, that future value is $768,232.

Healthcare inflation, geographic location, age, and gender all factor into continuously rising costs. Based on the greater average life expectancy for women (89 vs. 87 for men), a 30-year-old female retiring at 65 can expect to pay $548,098 (in today’s dollars) in total lifetime retirement health care expenses – $118,632 more than a male of the same age.

HealthView’s data also projects that a 66-year-old couple will spend an average of 48% of their Social Security to cover total health care costs, a 55-year-old couple retiring in 10 years will spend 57%, and a 45-year-old couple, 72%. Considering the rumors about the uncertain future of the program, how much extra should we anticipate setting aside to make up the difference?

For assistance with these complex and ever-changing issues, go to WISER. The Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement is an organization that was formed to focus exclusively on the unique long-term financial challenges facing women.


Senior Friends on VacationHow do you see yourself spending your time? Will you explore what’s been on your bucket list for years or turn a long-time hobby into a new business? Maybe you’d like to stay connected to your current work but as a consultant so you have more time to travel.

If your pre-retirement lifestyle has always included a couple of major vacations each year, will your post-retirement income and budget continue to support that? Whichever direction you are leaning toward, consider how your activities will affect your overall long term financial planning.

Adjust Your Financial Strategy As Your Situation Changes

Whatever your picture of retirement looks like now, it will most likely change at some point in the future, for any number of reasons, maybe more than once. Whenever that happens, discuss the possibility of adjusting your strategy with your financial professional, even if you think your current plan could still work. There may be some additional benefits or tax savings that apply to your new situation.

Work with someone you trust who is knowledgeable on all aspects of retirement and doesn’t just focus on certain areas of your portfolio. Make sure your plan is truly the best fit for your situation. Remember that saying we’ve all heard many times regarding self-care and “put your own oxygen mask on first.” The reality of retirement is…the best way to be prepared is to prioritize your unique needs and to stay informed.

Do It Now: Incorporate Invisia when remodeling a bathroom

If you are remodeling a bathroom, no matter your age, consider incorporating the products of a Canadian company called Invisia. I’m not affiliated with them; I just like their products. One of the reasons for that is the Invisia collection doesn’t make your home look like a hospital. A related reason is that they make it palatable even for people in their 30s, 40s or 50s to follow one of my tenets when it comes to ensuring you can stay in your home for decades to come – start now.

When considering how to adapt a bathroom for future needs, one of the things people think about first is grab bars. Unfortunately, this thought is also one of the main reasons that people decide to put the project off!  Invisia features support accessories that look like regular soap dishes, shampoo shelves, toilet paper holders, or towel bars, but each one also supports up to 500 pounds of weight.  They are multi-functional and invisibly supportive. In keeping with current trends, there is a choice of chrome or satin finish.

As for seating, there is a shower seat or a bath bench, both made of moisture-resistant bamboo wood with rustproof aluminum trim, designed to make your bathroom feel like a spa – elegant and functional, rather than like a hospital room. Other companies have also started offering some “invisible design” products, but this company has my support because it was the first.  These engineering pioneers found a way to provide security without compromising style or function.

I’m starting a project next week and will be ordering from Invisia.

This new project is yet another case of someone who waited too long.  If you are in your 40s or 50s and are remodeling a bathroom, consider going ahead and incorporating these products. Even though you may not need them right now for support, take advantage of their function as traditional bathroom accessories, which you would be purchasing anyway. I see too many people waiting until it’s almost too late to fit out their homes; they’ve already had a fall and they or their adult children are considering a move to assisted living. You don’t want to do anything when it’s too late. You end up spending more money for fewer options. Whether you are remodeling a bathroom or any other area of your home, make sure it’s done so you’ll be able to enjoy it for as long as possible.

Invisible Design for Whole Life Living in Your House

Comfortable, Functional and Looks Good Too – Invisible Design for Whole Life Living in Your Home

It’s possible for you to take an active, socially conscious role in preparing for age-related changes in your life. Imagine your future. Where will you want to live and how might you function there? Of course, you don’t want a hospital-like environment but you will want support. Invisible Design can make whole life living in your house both possible and the logical choice, without sacrificing your sense of style.

Age in Place with Invisible Design

Invisible Design refers to aesthetically pleasing or even unnoticeable features built into your home that will provide the support you need as you age. At its best, you will be able to live where you choose throughout your whole life. For many, that means aging in their longtime home. However, Invisible Design options exist for both renovations and new construction.

We know that living where you choose tends to result in a richer, more fulfilling life. Invisible Design makes that kind of life easier to achieve.

Invisible Design means living more consciously. Today, you are conscious of at least some of the changes that you may experience at different stages of life. Working with an aging in place specialist, you can become more aware – and conscious of the features and tools that will best support your lifestyle during those times. You can already anticipate many of the benefits by taking steps now to prepare.

Why Invisible Design Matters

Invisible Design is environmentally conscious because it often relies on relatively minor changes or adaptive re-use of your existing home. Invisible Design is socially conscious because it allows you to maintain the communities and relationships you’ve built through the years. You take a leading role in designing the life you want to have now and in the future. That just feels good.

The two most common health challenges that people experience as they get older are vision changes and arthritis. Incorporating Invisible Design features that anticipate these or other changes can mean whole life living in your home.

Your Home as Your Anchor Investment

Invisible Design can be financially conscious, too. Your house is probably your biggest investment; it’s not disposable and neither is the life you built in that home. There are products on the market now that allow you to be resourceful in how you prepare your home for the long-term.

Life can throw a lot of curveballs; retirement may not be what you planned. Most families face at least some of the following:

  • Adult children move home, often bringing their own children along, for weeks or months while transitioning to a new job, home or situation.
  • Grandchildren may come for the entire summer or depend on their grandparents for even more support than that.
  • Baby Boomers may have aged parents living with them.
  • Adult children with special needs may be forever companions.
  • There’s also the growing trend of families choosing to house multi-generations under one roof for the welfare, good and happiness of all.

A well-prepared home can be a constant, a rock of stability that anchors the whole family.

Should it eventually come time to sell the house, one invisibly fitted out for whole life living offers an excellent re-sale value.


What’s the ultimate purpose of Invisible Design?

To enable vibrant living through all phases of life.

How does “design” come into the picture?

Design means interpreting each family’s unique lifestyle and priorities – what’s important to them, how they live, how they want to feel in their home and the things they must have. What are the things they can be flexible on? It’s their own program of desired features, their wish list combined with the function that will be required.

Architectural design typically involves both aesthetics and creative problem solving but, with Invisible Design, we add a third layer of invisible functionality, allowing people to stay in their homes long-term, without sacrificing the special things that make it uniquely theirs.

The alternative is having to go elsewhere and start over in a place that helps people function better, but may require sacrificing some of the other things they enjoy. Often, one of these sacrifices is aesthetics – a beautifully tiled bathroom for one with bulky grab bars, or a gourmet kitchen for a tiny kitchenette with adjustable height counters.

As a verb, Invisible Design creatively interprets needs and wishes, optimally resolving the disparities between the lifestyle you enjoy and the needs you may have in the future:  planning and preparing for eventualities unforeseen by the homeowner … and doing so in a way that nobody can tell.  One example of such planning would be prepping the bathroom with blocking behind the walls for future installation of attractive support accessories – should they ever be needed.

What would my home look like with Invisible Design?

Let’s take a tour … Imagine a house and, as you approach, rather than steps, the landscaped path gradually takes you toward the door. You feel swept along in the direction you wish to go. You might be approaching with a stroller or walking with a cane. For anyone living there or visiting, it’s easy to get there. When you host a gathering, no one will have to miss out on the fun!

At the door, there may be a little shelf or table to set your packages on so your hands are free to retrieve your keys. The front door is generously sized, though not overly large. (Even if you envision a cottage, this door feels appropriately scaled.)

Inside, the home is uncluttered, no matter how large or how modest in size. The floor space is clear, free of loose throw rugs, easy to navigate. The lighting is abundant, either from natural sources or fixtures that make it easy to see when painting that masterpiece or reading the fine print.

The arrangement of furnishings makes it easy to circulate through the space – whether for children who are playing or for someone using a walker or wheelchair. Clear space, clean space. This works with any style of decor.

There may be some degree of open plan to access the kitchen, even if this was originally an older home not designed with an open plan in mind.

Placement of the fixtures in the kitchen and the types of handles – nothing to turn! – are all convenient. Stove controls are located toward the front of the stove to prevent accidental fires; cabinet drawers rather than deep shelves are the norm; the freezer drawer pulls out, and faucets are touch-activated.

Appliances are whatever works best for you. For example, the microwave may have a drawer instead of a door. The dishwasher may be a little higher than usual, making it easy for anyone with arthritis to load and unload.

For upkeep, you may have a ‘whole house vacuum,’ in which you simply sweep dust into grooves in the floor and push a button on the wall to take it away, no bending or stooping necessary.

High use rooms are located adjacent to one another; bedrooms are easy to access. The master bedroom may have its own bathroom, with a curbless shower instead of a tub. In a multi-level home, there is an easily accessible bathroom on the main floor, which also makes it easier for guests who are less mobile.

The bathroom might have grab bars that don’t look like grab bars – because they are also towel bars or toilet paper holders. Shampoo shelves or soap dishes that look very modest in your shower can also help keep you stable or provide a place to lean on because they can support up to 500 pounds of weight.

All dressed and ready to go? No step (no threshold) doorways are the norm. Exit via a flat slab garage or driveway in your own car or take advantage of ride-share options. Whatever your style, Invisible Design makes whole life living in your house possible, safer and more comfortable.


3 Things to Consider When Asking: Should my aging parent move into my house?

Should my parent move into my house? I get this question a lot. Though I am an architect, here are 3 things I encourage people to consider before we even begin discussing their design or renovation.

What’s the reason for your parent moving in?

Perhaps your other parent has died and the widowed parent is lonely; maintaining a house can be an issue, as can health conditions that require you to visit often. Your parent may even live far away and you feel the need to check on them more frequently than before.

Answering this question in an explicit way – rather than letting the ramifications of such a move predominate your thoughts – will help you evaluate your home and determine whether it’s sufficiently equipped or requires modification. Are the spaces physically configured in the best way to accommodate the situation? Even if everyone gets along, it’s an adjustment and there will be emotional needs for space. You may have three bedrooms and your kids are out of the house, but it may still be a little too “cozy” in the current configuration. Keep in mind that every generation has a different routine.

How is the health of your parent? 

Will you need an additional caregiver, perhaps overnight or potentially, in the future, to also move in? Even if the house has plenty of space and everyone is reasonably healthy, consider that arthritis and vision changes are the most common conditions that affect people as they age, so there will be other needs. Lever handles instead of turn knobs may be necessary.  And even with good health, you’ll want additional lighting. Although stairs may not be a problem, is there sufficient lighting for easy navigation — whether natural or artificial, during the day and at night?  How comfortable and easy is it for your parent to go into the kitchen and make lunch? If mobility is an issue, consideration may also be given to getting in and out of the house. Your parent may still drive, but needs extra adjustments in safely getting to and from the car. If this is difficult and prevents him or her from getting out and maintaining a familiar routine, it may lead to depression and feeling housebound, affecting everyone in the home. It manifests in different ways for different people and often results in frustration on your part.

How easy is it for your parent to maintain his or her independence, social group, or “village”?

Would moving into your home allow your parent to remain connected in some way to the people and activities he or she enjoys? If not, this could be a concern, as your parent may become dependent on you for everything. Though you may want your parent with you, your parent may be happier if he or she can somehow stay connected with the old neighborhood, and preserve his or her sense of identity. If you’re unsure, sit down and talk about it – ask how your parent would feel about not being able to participate in that group they’ve been a part of forever. Maybe they’ll talk about how they’d miss seeing their friends regularly. On the other hand, maybe what they’d really miss is doing a particular hobby or being of service in the community. Depending on their response, are there similar activities in your area that you could suggest to help ease the transition? Whether designing a house or designing a new family arrangement, the same basic rule applies: start by listening to what is most important to everyone involved. It’s the best way to find the right solution to your unique situation.

If you are asking, “Should my parent move into my house?” these are some important things to consider when weighing the options. Failing to do so could make or break the arrangement, leading to unwanted stress and hard feelings.  Although these questions are more about making sure everyone has space, balance and attention to their needs and values, we also help people with the next steps. If you are ready to prepare your home for your parent to move in, we’d be delighted to have a free 30-minute consultation with you to determine whether we could be of assistance.

CLICK HERE to schedule a call

To Improve Your Memory, Act Like a Kid

The following article by Lisa Bixler originally appeared in Prime Women magazine.

As kids, we were given all kinds of mnemonic tricks to memorize new material. Some that still come to mind are “Roy G Biv” for the colors of the spectrum, “Please excuse my dear Aunt Sally” for the order of operations in math and “My very educated mother just served us nine pizzas” for the distance of the planets from the sun. On television, the songs of Schoolhouse Rock helped us remember grammar, history and math.

These days, between juggling work and family responsibilities and living in an age of so much instant communication, sometimes it’s hard enough to remember why I just walked from one room into the next, much less process anything involving complex rules or new information.

It’s a known fact that our brains change as we age. Even the healthiest people have to make a greater effort to maintain concentration and focus, as it takes our brains more time than it did when we were younger to process and consolidate information. Life today forces us to multitask, and all the technology that surrounds us raises expectations even higher, making it extremely difficult to eliminate the competing distractions.

So what are ways to improve memory? Experts recommend starting off by writing down the things you don’t need to memorize. Doing this actually frees up the mind to focus on the things you do want to remember. After that, take a lesson from the kids in your life.

Do your homework.

Create regular habits that will help your mind learn to think differently. Give yourself active vs. passive cognitive stimulation, for instance going to a talk on a topic that interests you instead of watching a program about it on tv. Exploring new interests and using your mind in ways that you enjoy facilitates the growth of new brain cells.

We are all distracted by a combination of external and internal thoughts. Especially as women, our minds are often on multiple things simultaneously. Try repeating out loud what you are trying to remember, at different times throughout the day. Creating time for deliberate, conscious focus will allow the material to get into the hippocampus, the storage part of the brain.

Play Video GamesTake a break to play video games.

Studies have found that playing 3D video games on a regular basis is one of the ways to improve memory because it slows down the aging brain. Engaging your mind in this way has multiple benefits: it increases the amount of gray matter in the hippocampus and cerebellum, reverses the atrophy that typically occurs as people get older, and improves spatial and short term memory.

Not to be minimized are the unscientific but equally important benefits of video games, like elevating your “cool status” with the kids and grandkids and offering you another way to bond with them.

Act silly.

Our visual memory is typically stronger than our verbal memory, and we tend to remember things that are more unusual or funny. Think of some of your favorite memories with family and friends over the years and the crazy stories that are often recalled when you get together. Using this natural ability of associating what you want to remember with images that are weird or absurd, even incorporating those images into a silly story or a song, will help you retain the information. Adding rhythm and rhyme, whether in a story or song, can further accelerate the process. Just as kids in school have an easier time learning subjects they enjoy, use your favorite interests as the basis for the stories or songs you create. Making associations that are personally relevant to you will enable you to retain the information faster and easier, as you will automatically engage more of your senses in the process. A golf theme may work for some, while for others references to fashion or cooking or pop culture do the trick.

Physical ActivityA little discipline goes a long way.

Children tend to thrive in an environment that includes structure and balance, and the same can be said for our minds as we age. Cultivating lifestyle habits that balance physical activity with good sleep, our favorite food and drinks with good nutrition, and socializing with a regular spiritual practice can go a long way toward increasing our overall health and longevity.

HaVe SoDa.

To conclude this piece, I decided to practice the ways to improve memory by creating a way to memorize the above suggestions. I listed the main word from each of the four headings: Homework, Video games, Silliness, Discipline. Taking the first letter of each, I turned it into a phrase by adding a vowel beside each letter, coming up with HaVe SoDa. Not the most brilliant solution but it works for me, and it goes along with the theme of being a kid. If anyone else can up with a story or song on the topic instead, please let me know!

Designing for Dementia: 5 Tips for Moving Your Loved One In

The following article by Lisa Bixler originally appeared in Prime Women magazine.

As we settle into this “wiser” chapter of life, there’s much to celebrate–like stronger sense of self, more freedom and flexibility with our time to do the things we enjoy, and greater financial security to name a few. On the other hand, this is also the time that we may start to notice cognitive changes in our aging parents that make us realize it’s not a good idea for them to be living independently anymore. For many people, the best solution seems to be having their family member move in with them. Comments like, “My house is big enough,” or “I’ll be able to keep a closer eye on them this way,” or “They’ll be much happier around family than in some facility,” are frequently heard, and although these statements may be true, many people don’t consider if their home is ready to actually handle the scenarios and challenges that occur with memory-related illnesses.

One thing I have personally learned about this type of illness is that no two cases are exactly alike, so following the recommendations of your loved one’s health care team is important when caring for someone with dementia. In addition, here are a few suggestions that may help when thinking about how to prepare your home:

1. Make it familiar

Generally speaking, if your home has a completely different feel than what they are used to, it can be more confusing and difficult for them to adapt to their new environment. When caring for someone with dementia, it helps the adjustment go more smoothly if at least some of the spaces and adjacencies are similar. Incorporating some of their favorite furnishings or possessions can also ease anxiety. Provide eye level storage in their closet so they can locate their belongings more easily, since they may have a harder time looking up or down. How’s your lighting? Minimize the use of reflective surfaces and light fixtures that produce glare, as that tends to increase agitation. Aim for even levels of light throughout the house.

2. Make it connected

Provide easy access to areas or activities they enjoy–e.g. backyard garden, family room, etc., so they can move independently as long as possible and still be involved in “normal” family life rather than being socially isolated. Studies have shown that remaining active and engaged can even improve brain function.

3. Make it safe

When caring for someone with dementia, think of it as if you now have a very tall toddler in the house. As their condition changes, create higher level and/or secure storage and move sharp utensils, cleaning supplies, medicines, tools and other potentially dangerous objects out of reach. Pay extra attention to areas like garage, basement, work rooms, and outdoor spaces. You may need to relocate or hide switches to appliances like the garbage disposal, microwave and stove, as well as any connections to the outdoor gas grill.

4. Make it secure

Position exterior dead bolts higher or lower than normal height so they are less likely to wander out the door, and position locks on fence gates higher or lower than normal height so they are less likely to wander out of the yard. (Again, this is because it can be difficult for those with cognitive illnesses to look up or down.) Equally important, remove locks from any interior doors so they can’t accidentally lock themselves in.

5. Make it supportive

Consider what would be helpful for caregivers and family members living in the home. Is there a bathroom with a walk-in shower, wide enough for a caregiver and possible medical equipment to fit? The Invisia line of bathroom accessories is wonderful–it blends style and safety to “invisibly” provide necessary support without making your home look like a hospital.

If your home doesn’t have a separate bedroom close to theirs for a future in-home or overnight caregiver, is there an office or other space that could be converted if the need arises? Is there a bedroom farther away so other family members have fewer sleep disruptions when the caregiver gets up during the night? Disorientation, general confusion, hallucinations and bathroom issues are common as cognitive illnesses progress. Research local options for adult day care programs or the various types of in-home assistance. These can come in handy when caring for someone with dementia, even if just needed occasionally.

Regardless of the configuration of your home, by communicating regularly with other family members, your medical team, and local support groups, you will be able to closely monitor the situation and determine specific ways to adapt your environment to best address the needs that arise while you are caring for a loved one with dementia.

Be Happier and Healthier: The Benefits of Gratitude

The following article by Lisa Bixler originally appeared in Prime Women magazine.

“Gratitude is the healthiest of all human emotions.” – Zig Ziglar

Most of us learned about gratitude at a young age, in various forms. Saying a prayer before meals, being reminded to “count your blessings,” and sending thank you notes to relatives for birthday and Christmas gifts are a few that come to mind. We learned what we should do, but we didn’t really think about it much beyond that. Years later, Oprah stressed the transformative benefits of gratitude and many of us followed her lead, starting journals of our own.

The Benefits of Gratitude in Science

Today, there is no shortage of information on the internet telling us how choosing gratitude will make us happier and healthier, have better relationships, higher productivity at work, increased energy, and greater resiliency, just to name a few. I even came across one interesting website that summarizes the results of over 40 scientific studies on the subject and outlines 31 benefits “you didn’t know about.”

On an intellectual level, we all get it. But what happens when you’ve been deeply affected by traumatic circumstances? Whether it’s the health of a loved one, a toxic workplace, or a natural disaster, certain types of stress can make it difficult for even the most optimistic people to move forward after surviving in fight or flight mode for a period of time.

According to acclaimed executive coach Eva Archer Smith, an expert in the field of transformation, “Your brain has enormous neuroplasticity, so you can rewire it to change. And it changes by actions, not thoughts.” She says that one of the fastest proven ways to move from the default setting of the ‘primitive’ or fear-based brain, which senses danger and releases the stress hormone, cortisol, to the pre-frontal cortex, which releases the feel-good hormone, oxytocin, is by practicing gratitude.

Higher levels of oxytocin can reduce the body’s stress response, increase social interactions and enable people to seek support during difficult times. It also keeps the heart strong, protecting it from the effects of stress by helping the cells to regenerate. If the idea of re-learning gratitude is overwhelming, Smith recommends taking a step back and starting with curiosity, asking yourself, “How can I think about this situation differently?” Until my conversation with her I was not familiar with the link between curiosity and gratitude, but our discussion sparked my own curiosity on the subject so I dug a little deeper. I found a powerful short video on the subject by TED curator, Chris Anderson.

Then I discovered that this video is part of an amazing project by filmmaker Louis Schwartzberg, which explores the benefits of gratitude through a series of 15 film shorts, each illustrating a different behavior with a visible connection to the topic. Besides curiosity, the features include patience, forgiveness, purpose, courage, and generosity. Wow.

Living in Houston, in the past few months since Hurricane Harvey I’ve seen gratitude expressed in many of these forms. Everyone was impacted in some way, and it will be a while before the region fully recovers. Two things that I will always remember about this time are how much those who were more fortunate demonstrated gratitude by putting their own lives on hold for an extended period of time in order to help others who were not as lucky and how those who seemed to be the worst off amazingly showed the most gratitude of all.

Thousands of people who lived for weeks at the Red Cross shelter in the Convention Center were so appreciative of the smallest things, like the woman looking through organized piles of donated clothes to find something to wear to an upcoming job interview or the children who smiled at the options on the snack table and thanked the volunteers as they made their selections. No one cried or complained, including the employees who were tasked with continuously keeping all the restrooms clean. Believe it or not, they were spotless.

Among the conversations when checking in with people immediately after the storm, I heard things like, “Oh we’re fine. We only got 8 inches of water in our house.” Or, “We’re good. We only lost our cars.” These were circumstances that would typically cause people to unravel a bit, and for good reason. But when surrounded by so many others dealing with far worse situations, choosing gratitude enabled them to transition from fight or flight mode to resiliency.

One local rock star of resiliency and master of choosing gratitude is fashion designer Gayla Bentley, who lost nearly all of her personal belongings when the chest-deep flood waters destroyed her home. In order to gain closure and move forward, she channeled her curiosity and creativity and demonstrated just about every one of the 15 behaviors in those film shorts. The result? She threw a “fashion funeral” in her backyard to say goodbye to what was and start a fresh chapter. Her unique, uplifting story can be found here.

If we look around in our daily lives, we can find ways of intentionally choosing gratitude, regardless of the less than pleasant situations we may otherwise be experiencing. And when it’s difficult to immediately make the shift, going with one of the other connected behaviors will set us on the right path. To Gayla Bentley and the others who remind us how to translate an intellectual understanding of the subject into an inspirational experience that actually transforms our physical and emotional health, I would personally like to say, “I’m grateful for you.”

Taking the Car Keys from Aging Parents: Starting the Conversation

The following article by Lisa Bixler originally appeared in Prime Women magazine.

Recently I planned a trip to visit some out of state family members. “I’ll see you at the airport!” one of them told me on the phone. That had always been our routine, and I didn’t think anything of it, even though a few other relatives had mentioned that lately they’d noticed changes in this person’s driving.

One of them, slightly less tactfully, even commented that he wasn’t prepared for a thrill-seeking adventure ride the day that he got in the car. I listened, but decided to take a chance anyway. It was only a 20 minute ride from the airport, and it was all local roads.

Big mistake.

I found myself silently reciting every prayer I’d ever learned, in addition to making up some new ones, as we repeatedly drifted into the next lane, narrowly missing the other cars. The worst moment came when we sailed through the red light at a four way intersection during rush hour traffic.

The driver was oblivious to all of it, making small talk and filling me in on the local happenings. Later, still shaken and grateful to be alive, I sat down with the others to try and figure out what to do about the situation. How do you tell someone you love that it’s time to turn over their car keys?

There are various reasons why our driving abilities change as we age – including vision and hearing loss, arthritis, neuropathy, side effects of medication, dementia and other cognitive issues. It can be especially difficult to witness this change in our aging parents – the people who typically taught us to drive.

For those who are unsure how to address this topic with mom or dad, a conversation with their doctor is a good place to start. Doctors deal with this issue often and are used to “playing the bad guy,” referring the patient for a comprehensive driving assessment.

These assessments are performed by occupational therapists or rehabilitation specialists. Costs can run into hundreds of dollars but are often covered by insurance. The results are sent to the doctor and patient and will help in planning the next steps. A few good resources to learn more about clinical driving assessments are:

The Hartford Driving Evaluation

AAA Senior Driving Assessment

Develop solutions based on the condition and cause for the impairment

Depending on recommendations from the professional, sometimes the patient can learn new movements and behavioral strategies to compensate for the problem. On the other hand, if processing and reaction time is still intact but the person occasionally forgets where to turn, having a passenger in the car to help with directions could allow them to drive a little longer.

When the only safe solution seems to be for the person to completely stop driving, discuss alternatives and figure out which ones they’d be most comfortable trying.

Examine the root of the resistance

Choosing to stop driving once a person reaches a certain age or condition is definitely the exception and not the norm. For many of our aging parents, driving is a strong part of their identity. Learning to drive was a major rite of passage in their lives. They can still remember in detail the day they got their license or bought their first car. To them, giving up the keys means a loss of freedom and independence, so they will fight to hang on to them as long as possible. For others, relationship roles play a factor.

For instance, if one person in a couple typically drove whenever they went anywhere together, that person may resist giving up the role and letting the other person start taking the wheel. Some are also afraid that if they stop driving they will lose an important connection to their community, whether that’s family, friends, or a particular activity they enjoy. Understanding where the resistance is coming from helps create alternatives that work best for each situation.

Help them keep doing what brings them joy

Is it going to a longstanding weekly lunch with their friends? Is it a favorite swim class or church on Sundays? Pick a comfortable, relaxed setting and let them take their time telling you what that is; then continue to prioritize those things as you develop the new plan. Reassurance that the most important pieces of their lifestyle and routine will remain intact can go a long way to make older seniors feel less fearful and more receptive in the face of a big change.  Another useful resource is the free online seminar by AARP. It offers good information for dealing with various aspects of this challenging issue with your aging parents.

Driverless cars, new apps, robots and drones… Who knows how those technological advancements we keep hearing about will change the conversation over the next generation? In the meantime, adding compassion and support to professional medical advice when dealing with your aging parents can be an effective way to get the conversation started.

Design for Life: An Architect’s 12 Rules for Vibrant Living

The following article by Lisa Bixler originally appeared in Prime Women magazine.

Every day brings opportunities to enhance our lives, at least up to a point, or so the story goes for many people that I, and probably you, know. My architecture practice, however, has shown me a different kind of story, one that often emerges when people start thinking about life after retirement.

Those opportunities, once embraced, become overshadowed by mixed emotions and resignation. So, I tell my clients who are choosing to live in place (often called aging in place) or build their retirement home: Let joy be your guide in preparing for the future.

When I started my practice, the future seemed like an open field with nothing yet standing on it. What would I create? I wasn’t sure.  Over time, as I listened to my clients, the answers began to take shape.

primewomen_seniors golfOne set of clients, Ann and John, purchased a lot near a golf course but far from the family they loved inviting for holiday celebrations. Another client, Cindy, was thinking of moving into an assisted living center but was dreading giving up her garden. What Ann, John and Cindy had in common, I realized, was the idea that they must give something up in order to brace themselves for growing older.

They equated age with “giving up” for one simple reason: They were not prioritizing. Ann and John put access to the golf course on par with having their extended family come over for dinner. Cindy was willing to replace the garden she loved with access to a healthcare professional, “just in case.”

My approach is collaborative, so once I became aware of these imbalanced trade offs, we could envision alternatives to allow aging in place: Ann and John would need a spare bedroom and a generous family room so that those annual festivities became destination vacations for their children and grandchildren instead. Cindy moved access to nature to the top of her list and was willing to be flexible in how she got help in the future, should the need arise.

Thanks to my clients, I developed a design not only for their homes, but also for my own life. Just as those of us in business would never sit around and wait for the phone to ring, we should never wait until things fall apart in our home or our health and then throw in the towel on what we love to do. So, my 12 Rules that I’ll share with you are as follows:

1. Create a “lifelong home.”

Remember that good solutions can work at many stages of life. A wider doorway will accommodate both a baby stroller and a wheel chair. The popular open floor plan will make life easier in general and possibly enable you to stay in your home for more years than you thought possible.

2. Plan for living in place, not aging in place.

When thinking about retirement today, that often means traveling* and playing golf. “Aging with dignity is for an older generation,” a recent retiree told me. It is applicable for some, but there are many retirees ready to start a new business, a nonprofit or a world tour.

3. Thou shalt not sacrifice aesthetics for function.

Approach your remodeling projects with a long range view. Choose designs and materials now that will also attractively and invisibly accommodate your future needs.

4. Cleave to community.

For some, this means joining a new community in a residential center; for others, it’s remaining a part of their longtime community; and for still others, it’s finding community where their children live.

5. Start with what you love to do as you make your plans for the future.

If you host a family gathering or club meeting once a month, keep doing it. Even most assisted living centers have a party room or family room.

6. Keep doing what gives you joy.

If you love nature, build that into your plans. Even if you are downsizing your accommodations, you can still live in an expansive way because we all continue to grow and evolve every day of our lives.

7. Keep the money in the family.

Hold on to the money you’ve worked for your whole life. Do this by planning for the future, and know that there are many possible futures that you can create while still retaining your wealth.

8. Increase the value of what you have.

Done right, preparations for living in place will actually increase the value of your home.

9. Give yourself more alternatives by starting early.

Take time to explore all your options so you can choose the best ones for you. There are many possibilities for the future; it is not one size fits all.

10. Consider ‘Futuristic’ technology and transport because it’s here and now.

This may either be for you or for an elderly loved one; for instance, it is possible to remotely monitor a loved one who needs constant assistance or oversight with their medication. Investigate how technology could work for you and enable aging in place.

11. Choose a long range strategy versus a short term fix.

Figure out what would be sustainable for you and make thoughtful changes. You can phase in adaptations toward a comfortable and well-supported future, if you have a plan.

12. Start now.