Aging in place not just about home’s interior


The “portal to hell” aka the crawlspace where the water heater is located.

As I wrote about in my last post, caregiving can give you tunnel vision, and while I was busy tending to my mother’s every health need, I overlooked some basic household duties, like changing that darned furnace filter.

But another thing I had to deal with on my recent visit to what was my parents’ condo made me realize that aging in place is not just about retrofitting a home’s interior. When I arrived and turned on the kitchen faucet, I immediately noticed that the hot water had a very strong sulfur odor. I Googled the issue and found that it is common in cabins and other kinds of vacation rental homes, where the water sits unused for long periods of time. Basically, the water sitting in the water heater tank is an ideal incubator for bacteria, which, while harmless to humans, creates that godawful rotten eggs smell.

The simplest solution involves flushing out the water heater with bleach or hydrogen peroxide, which kills the bacteria.

As I searched for plumbers, I began to wonder, where the heck is the water heater?

By process of elimination, I figured the square door underneath and to the side of the condo must be where the water heater was located. The photo above is actually a neighbor’s unit, but it looks just like mine. What I couldn’t picture was how a water heater fit in such a small space.

When the plumber came out, the mystery was solved. The wood door had to be unscrewed with a power tool, and then the plumber, a pretty tall guy, angled his way through the portal. I stuck my head inside and saw that the crawlspace was quite large, the entire length of the two condos that are connected together. There were several discarded water heaters under there, a virtual graveyard. The plumber wanted to show me how the water heater was leaking, which required me to climb inside.

I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to do it; I’m not claustrophobic and am in decent shape but I am clumsy, and this was a very awkward hole to crawl through. Somehow, I managed to squeeze through without injuring myself, then was immediately concerned about how I would get back out.

The plumber told me I could flip the breaker on the water heater when I was headed out of town so I didn’t have to crawl back down there. That was another adventure, finding the circuit breaker. It was located in a storage closet outside the condo, and inexplicably placed in the back corner, meaning you had to be careful about what you stored in the closet so you could squeeze your way to the back and reach the breaker panel.

The entire debacle made me think about aging in place, and how important it is to examine the exterior and the interior of the home your aging loved ones are residing in or wish to move to, and look for red flags like this bizarre water heater setup. Take into account things like stairs, crawlspaces and anything else that is difficult for someone with limited mobility to access. Ideally, a homeowner would have convenient access to things like the furnace, the water heater, air conditioner, circuit breaker, etc. in case of emergency.

It’s definitely something I’ll think about when looking for a retirement property. No creepy “portals to Hades” for me!



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