Accessibility expert lives in an inaccessible home

Rollstuhl Farfler’s 3-wheel wheelchair, 1655. Public domain.

bootcamp2015-small 2In which I admit that my commitment to accessibility is not without limits.

There’s a limit to how far I’m prepared to plan ahead. Making my home safe, shareable and secure is as far as I’m willing to go at this stage.

One day I may need a walker or a wheelchair. That’s on the cards for someone who lives to 99. Does that mean I’m planning to make my home wheelchair accessible? No way. Not possible.

Hills, stairs and storeys

It so happens that the apartment I love is on a hill, up some stairs, and two storeys high. Worse, it’s an art deco building with walls made of nine-inch thick reinforced concrete. Any attempt to widen the doorways would be ill-advised for engineering and aesthetic reasons.

There’s a paradox here. In my professional life, accessibility looms large. My company audits websites for accessibility and trains writers to make their digital content accessible to everyone, including readers with disabilities of any sort—for example of vision, hearing, mobility or other physical problems. But when I need a wheelchair-accessible home, I’ll have to move.

This place is unfixable

Sometimes I stare out the window and visualise lifts. Or drone-delivery to my rooftop deck. Or beam-me-up-Scotty teleportation. They’re all equally improbable ways of conveying an old lady upstairs, given the type of building I live in.

All the more reason to get cracking on all the other boot camp challenges. As the apartment has its intransigent challenges, I’ll need to be in top form.

When it’s time to move, I’ll move. That’ll be at least 10 if not 20 years hence—and I sincerely hope, never.

Little home, lucky home, big home


“Have you ever paused to contemplate the idea of home?” asks Robyn Haynes in her blog, Big Dreams for a Tiny Garden. On a trip to Outback Queensland, she felt a deep connection with the land, and her sense of home expanded from house, garden and family to something much broader—Australia. (I’ve distorted her thought flow by summarising it — please read the original article for context.)

We all have at least two homes: a tiny home and a vast home. The lucky ones also have a roof over their heads, a location where they live, and a country.

Body. Roof. Neighbourhood. Country. Planet.

Our tiniest home is, you could argue, our body and we all have one of those. I am my body and I live in my body. When all is well, I feel at home in my body, and we take care of each other. (Mostly.) Difference is, I never leave this mini-home, even when I go to sleep.

My apartment, the roof over my head, brings me great delight. I step in the door and am instantly at home, meaning comfortable, relaxed, at peace—and grateful. But now, even New Zealand, the original model of a working welfare state, faces a crisis of homelessness. About one in 100 people here do not have a place to call their own. They are moving between temporary and insecure accommodation such as garages, garden sheds, cars and caravan parks, night shelters, emergency housing, and refuges. This is terrifying, mystifying, heartbreaking.

We have a neighbourhood if we have a permanent roof over our heads, no matter how humble. Then our home includes a town or a suburb or a province where we move around at will. But even a familiar neighbourhood is denied to the 40.8 million people worldwide who have been forced to flee their homes to another part of their country.

Most people belong a country, usually the country they were born in. At times we feel a bond that is profound, even spiritual. For voluntary travellers, a trip away triggers a surge of patriotism as we suddenly see what makes our odd little country unique. (I’m a Kiwi.) We leave, we return, we love our home regardless of its shortcomings.

I can return to my country, that’s the thing. But that is not an option for nearly 21.3 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. Children!

The only home for these people is the one we all share, the glorious, the hospitable, the fragile planet Earth. Is that any consolation for a refugee?

So Robyn, thank you for your question — I have been contemplating the idea of home.


The idea of home: Robyn Haynes

UNHCR: Figures at a glance (image from UNHCR)


Home maintenance in old age


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In which I am torn between an old age of grubby indolence (tempting) with the officious whip-cracking of a body corporate. 

Have you noticed a tendency of older people to stop dusting and cleaning and fixing up their homes? My sisters and I suspect that late in life our mother did zero housework. A nice helper went over the place very lightly every week, and every other sign of dirt and disintegration was totally ignored — or else was invisible to aging eyes.

In the immortal words of Quentin Crisp, “There is no need to do any housework at all. After the first four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse.” This is most encouraging, and I’m not knocking it. Works for some!

One legendary mother of ten sat down on a sofa at the age of 40 and announced that she was never going to do any more housework—but the dirt never stuck, because daughters took over the chores.

Some old people achieve domestic dirt and dilapidation

And some have domestic dirt and dilapidation thrust upon them, often through poor eyesight and mobility, lack of help or lack of money.

However, surveying older people who have followed the Quentin Crisp home maintenance model, I’ve decided that I would prefer my apartment to stay shipshape if possible on the stitch-in-time principle.

Unfortunately, I am unlikely to be exempt from poor eyesight and tiredness in my old age. And already I’m capable of deferring essential maintenance for 17 years! How can I improve the odds? How can I maintain my not-too-awful record into old age?

Bright idea: draft a long-term maintenance plan (LTMP)

An LTMP is mandatory for any body corporate in New Zealand; the Unit Titles Act requires an LTMP to ensure that shared property is maintained in good condition. Under the Act, an LTMP must be regularly maintained, so I’ll try to review this every 2-3 years as recommended. No. I won’t just try to. This is a boot camp! I will, I will, I will. I’ll add this duty  to the LTMP.

Right, sorted. I will be my own Body Corporate, in charge of the upkeep of my own apartment. I’ve started a spreadsheet for an LTMP that includes even mini-items such as replacing lightbulbs.  No need to rush in and do everything at once. I can set a schedule and relax.

Meantime when I run out of money or steam, my trusty cleaners will be one of the last luxuries I forego—after coffee.

P.S. I have now lost the spreadsheet.

Image from “American homes and gardens” (1905)

Update on the shareable home

Clean and tidy! A new little sitting area!

Last year I took steps to make my apartment shareable. One year later, this plan is working well. The apartment is in good enough shape to host AirBnB guests, which is bringing many rewards.

Hosting AirBnB guests: valuable in so many ways

I had three reasons for starting as an AirBnB host, letting my spare bedroom and bathroom to guests.

  • An extra income source, necessary at this stage of my career
  • A test and rehearsal for ultimately sharing my space with a carer
  • A way to force me to keep my home clean and tidy.

That’s all well and good, but the real benefits are quite different and much bigger.

I love the experience! Who knew? That is completely unexpected. My guests have been almost without exception interesting, entertaining, charming, independent and thoughtful. Each person or couple in just one or two conversations has shown me a glimpse of their unique way of thinking and living and being. A few examples: I’ve met donkey farmers, aid workers, writers, dancers, experts in AI, genetics and earthquake strengthening—all with a personal philosophy to match. More and more I understand that we are all working hard to become the person we’re meant to be, and that every path is different — at least among people with the interest and income to use a bed and breakfast place.

So in just a few months my guests have expanded my world view, freshened my outlook, stimulated my brain. As well as boosting my income a bit and keeping me alert to housekeeping details.

Novella: my listing on AirBnB 

A Dutch retirement home mixing young and old to the benefit of both

As for sharing accommodation long term, how about this?

My 93-year-old flatmate


A home for old age is shareable


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In which I confess that I designed my home for a hermit and that I now intend to mend my ways in preparation for an almost inevitable old age.

OK. My awareness of hazards within my home has been raised, and no doubt I’ll carry on making it safer.

But shareability is just as important if I want to stay in my apartment forever. Later, when independence becomes an unrealistic desire, it might be a rather good idea, just an idea, to share this apartment with another person. An old friend, a new friend, a nurse — someone who would notice if I didn’t appear for breakfast one morning.

I made my apartment unshareable on purpose

Now I have made it shareable by accident.

Because I now had a second bathroom, I decided on impulse to move upstairs. The tiny upstairs bedroom is in a sort of corridor on the way to my office, where I spend most of my working day. Sleeping there feels like playing hooky from real life, or camping under the stars. Up I went. More expenses followed, alas: in the office now I added a splendid built-in Lundia wardrobe-cum-office shelves. A big fat old couch in the corner and hey presto! this excellent study doubles as a private sitting room. Who’s a lucky girl?

Fix one thing and another needs fixing

Oops, the bedroom and bathroom downstairs need tidying up. New shower, mend a broken mirror, and boom! Now this is a guest-room with ensuite.

At that point I realised that I had a home that could easily be shared. Tons of usable, private space for two people or one plus a couple. I test it out with paying guests and yep, I could handle company, if carefully managed.

Slap me—I love living alone

This is a stupendous change in my mentality. I adore living alone. I choose to live alone. I love my people but I need buckets of privacy. I’m in no rush to share my space: I hope I can live alone for many many years. In fact my original design decisions (top bedroom in a corridor, for instance) guaranteed that nobody would dream of trying to share my space. It would be just too awkward. I did that on purpose, believe it or not: I put my own privacy ahead of my guests’ comfort, so they wouldn’t stay too long. So kick me.

But now, to my surprise, I feel confident that my apartment is arranged in such a way that sharing happily is possible, even for me. Meanwhile I practise on the occasional paying guest.

Reframing real estate: tell a new story

View from my apartment deck

Reframing reality. I’ve known about reframing since hearing these immortal words on a Louise Hay tape 20 years ago:

A thought is only a thought. You can think a new thought.

Truly? Really? I considered that idea with amazement. I knew it was true, and what a relief!

I have used reframing often since then. It changes everything! Or rather, you can change your frame of mind and this (thinking a new thought) can seem to change your entire situation. Last year a cognitive behaviour therapist enabled me to reframe a stressful reality after two visits. And of course I can always see when others need it, oh yes! I might even presumptuously advise them to use it.

But still, at times, boom! It’s me who needs it—but I’m blind to the fact.

Responsibility for real estate: a story that needed to change

Over the last few weeks I slid into a situation that was causing me great stress. Here is the story I told myself.

  • I’m Chair of the body corporate responsible for the block of 6 flats in which I live.
  • Body corporates now have major issues with earthquake proofing and health and safety policies
  • Body corporate office bearers now have major liability. If you fail in your duties and a tradesperson gets injured, you may have to pay $60,000 or $600,000
  • We meet only (clue: note that word only) 42% of local earthquake-proofing requirements.
  • Insurance companies are likely to raise their own requirements to 70%, or to raise fees for buildings below that level.
  • Earthquake-proofing of an old building like ours, built in 1940 same as me, is hugely stressful for the occupants, costs millions and affects saleability.
  •  Arithmetic is the problem: we have only five owners to do a huge amount of work
  • As Chair I feel overburdened.
  • It might be better to sell my apartment and buy a small house in the same neighbourhood.

Now, all those statements are true. Nevertheless it was a bad story, one that locked me into negativity and anxiety.

A better story which is equally true

I got lucky talking to a brilliant real estate agent. He said to me, “You need to reframe.”

He didn’t need to say another word. I knew exactly what he meant and within seconds I switched to a different story. I mean it, within seconds!

  • I live in a wonderful apartment with 360 degree views, sun, space, and everything else I need.
  • It’s worth enough so that I could sell it and look for a small standalone place.
  • But this beloved city-neighbourhood has only 400 homes and many of them are unhealthy. I am very, very lucky!
  • Our body corporate members are willing and able. We can organise ourselves so that the work is equally shared.
  • Compared with most other body corporates our problems are tiny.

Almost instantly the chips fell into place and I became confident and serene. We will have problems, of course we will! So? Others should be half as lucky.

That was easy! Ever tried it?


An old-age-appropriate home


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In which I evade future manslaughter charges and accidentally make my home safer for old people.


My first task in the boot camp challenge was to upgrade my apartment for old age. Most people (I suspect) want to stay in their own homes until the day they die. We want to live independently, and if independence eventually becomes impossible, then we hope for a good deal of autonomy. Whether we succeed depends largely on ourselves, but it also depends on the type of home we have.

So, time to look at my apartment realistically.  Is this a home suitable for a very old person?

With age, a home needs to be safe, shareable and shipshape.

Safety is what other people worry about most

They worry that their elderly relatives or patients might slip, trip, fall, brawl, burn, have a turn, shake or break.

Now it’s not my top priority to live safely for the next 25 years: when safety is the focus of life, the fun is over.

My home renovations began after I (finally) noticed the horrible dangers I was inflicting on my visitors. My guest bedroom was upstairs. The only bathroom was downstairs. To get there, my guests had to walk 40 steps, half of them on a narrow staircase without a handrail. Even to get out of bed, unlucky Guest A had to clamber over Guest B. As I get older, so do my guests. If you’ve got a sore hip or prostate trouble, this night-time scenario could ruin your stay.

What a nightmare apartment for old people!

Finally I got the message. So it was for other old people, not myself, good heavens no, that I installed a second bathroom in a tiny storeroom upstairs. It was for other old people that I provided the mandatory handrail — a mere 17 years late. It was ridiculously easy. One visit to a workshop around the corner, one call to my trusty handyman, a few coats of varnish and it was done.

At my 75th birthday, the renovations for these other old people (not me, I don’t need them, I thought) went on show. They liked the bathroom. But they liked the handrail more.

And you know what? Every single time I go up or down the stairs, I grip the handrail. Of course I don’t need to, oh no, not yet. But hey, it feels so smooth and solid. And safe.

Image in the public domain.