Since 1971, Fred Meyer has lived happily in an olive-green Victorian near the Harvard University campus. Though he's 73, he relishes scaling the stairs of the three-story property. Why? Because he insists that doing so keeps him fit.
“Climbing the stairs is part of my daily routine, so it doesn't feel like exercise,” said Meyer, a veteran real estate broker. “It's a good habit and a way of staying fit without thinking about it — and one my doctor endorses.”
Meyer said few of his older homebuying clients deliberately shop for a place with stairs to follow his example. But he said those open to purchasing a vertical property have more housing options available to them in retirement.
Of course, many retirement communities designed for those older than 55 offer buyers the choice of living in an apartment on one level, said James W. Hughes, a Rutgers University professor who tracks housing trends throughout the nation.
In addition, Hughes said some senior communities offer purchasers the option of choosing a small, detached house on one level — such as a miniature “villa.” But he said seniors who don't wish to live in an age-restricted community often have relatively few horizontal options open to them, especially if they wish to live in a new or nearly new place.
Here are a few pointers for those who are choosing between vertical and horizontal housing for their senior years:
• Look at the big picture of your physical health.
David Geier, an orthopedic surgeon in South Carolina, said many of his patients older than age 55 have a significant level of osteoarthritis in their knees. He said those experiencing a great deal of knee pain, limited range of motion and balance issues are not ideal candidates to live in a multistory house.
Even after they've recovered from total knee replacement surgery, he said some patients are ill-suited to vertical living.
However, older homebuyers who are in good condition can benefit from the exertion required to use stairs on a regular basis, said Lisa Morrone, a physical therapist and author in New York.
“For people in shape, using stairs is a good weight-bearing exercise,” Morrone said.
• Lose weight before deciding whether to move to a vertical home.
“At least two-thirds of people in the U.S. are overweight or obese. And excess weight — like a sedentary lifestyle — puts a heavy burden on the knees,” Morrone said.
Because extra weight is such a major physical problem, she urges heavy people to shed pounds before committing to the purchase of a home that requires stair-climbing.
Samuel Robinson, an orthopedic surgeon in Virginia, said patients with significant knee pain due to osteoarthritis often find considerable relief after dropping weight. “Even losing five or 10 pounds can make a tremendous difference,” he said.
• Use regular exercise to increase your housing options.
Robert Wayner, a physical therapist in Oregon, said it's important for older people seeking to live in a vertical house to strengthen their leg muscles — especially their quadriceps, or “quads.”
Besides strengthening their quads, he said seniors seeking to live in a home with stairs should be sure to incorporate into their routine balance exercises, which can help them guard against falling.
Robinson encourages those who include running in their aerobic exercise workouts also to mix in other activities that involve less stress to the knees.
“Instead of running every day, cross-train on alternate days by substituting a swim or a bike ride,” he said.
To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at ellen