Are you counting on being Peter Pan? Living in a Peter Pan House?

J. M. Barrie’s fantastical Peter Pan is the boy who never grows up. Peter Pan doesn’t have to worry about climbing stairs as he ages. He just wrestles with crocodiles and Captain Hook as his youth is his work.  

What works at 50 doesn’t make sense at 80

Alas, we’re all Wendys, exiled from Neverland to the real world where age eventually catches us. That doesn’t mean we all accept being Wendy. Many of us act as if the future will be just like the past.

We pretend we’re Peter Pan. We think we can stay in our family home forever because it’s safe and familiar. Perhaps we’ve planned for retirement when the second home vacation cottage can become the full-time retreat. Unfortunately few family homes and even fewer vacation homes are friendly to aging occupants.

Barriers to seniors abound, including narrow hallways and doors, outside stairs to get inside, inside stairs to get to the bathroom or bedrooms. What works at 50 doesn’t make sense at 80. Beware the trap of the Peter Pan House, the house that assumes you never get older.

We recently made the pre-retirement move to our lake vacation home. We gave up the big family home in Arizona to be close to aging parents, to help and enjoy their company while we still can. Ironically, we had bought the last family home with a requirement it works in the event of age or disability. It had a first-floor master suite, large attached garage and easy exit and entry. It was just in the wrong state when the family called.

Peter Pan House Personified 

We ended up moving into a prototypical Peter Pan House. Our lake community is idyllic, but the layout of the lake cabin is not ideal for anyone with mobility challenges. The core was built in the 1920s but has grown with several haphazard additions that pre-date us. The end result looks like a 1970s split-level with the bedrooms and a single bathroom over the two-car garage with the old cabin as the main level, five steps down. Every addition’s floor level requires steps up or down.

The scale of the barriers was highlighted by a visit from an elderly, long-time family friend crippled with bad knees and hips. The minimum number of steps to get inside through any point of access was six. Our friend didn’t stay long because the bathroom would require a trek of another seven stairs. That could be either of us in twenty years, as old sports injuries and new arthritis already announces every weather change.

Remodeling, the Imperfect Solution 

Somethings can be addressed by remodeling. We raised the floor level when redoing the old back porch, now an enclosed sunroom and open floor plan kitchen. The new floor now matches the main cabin, eliminating one interior step or stumble. We plan to add a second bath on the main level as we remodel the old kitchen space. The laundry has to be relocated also with the remodel, to the main level.

Universal design (age and disability accommodation) can be bought. But remodeling is not free and some problems are baked-in so that moving is cheaper than fighting. I already fell once on the exterior stairs last winter. Not fatal at 50-something, but far more problematic at 80.

Away from it all also means away from easy access to medical care and other services. We know our Peter Pan cabin is not a permanent solution, even remodeled with elder living in mind. Wendy’s example is true and right. We can’t stay in Neverland forever.

peter pan house

Sandwich Generation Insight 

Our Wendy realism is based in part on experience as sandwich generation caregivers. My Dad was still living in a two-story monster long after he had the energy to care for it or to climb the stairs to the bedroom. Lori’s Dad fell doing maintenance, starting a cascade of health challenges. The answer in each case was a continuing care retirement community (CCRC) where maintenance is someone else’s responsibility and care is readily accessible.

Freedom from Stuff 

In both cases, the folks probably moved too late to enjoy the full benefits of a CCRC or life plan community. The hassles of moving and sorting through possessions can be overwhelming when age reduces endurance. Our folks had the benefits of large families to pitch-in on the move and downsizing. Most baby boomers in retirement have far fewer offspring than they have siblings.

As parents, we hate to burden our children with our accumulated “treasures”. Those we’ve met, who’ve faced reality sooner rather than later, almost universally testify to being freed from servitude to stuff by downsizing and moving to a maintenance-free senior living condo while still vigorous. They are happier. There is a certain joy in being able to do the downsizing themselves rather than have it be done for them or to them.

Credit to Jon Pyoons, PhD Professor at USC Davis School of Gerontology for the term “Peter Pan Housing.” For a great discussion see his National Public Radio (NPR) interview with NPR host Michelle Norris. Dr. Pyoons advocates doing what we’re doing now to the cabin, remodeling with aging-friendly or universal design. But we think even that has limits. Someway, somehow you have to plan for your future likely state of being and make preparations for when mobility is not so easy.


There’s a strong preference for current elderly to age-at-home. But if you’re living in a Peter Pan House, the happy familiar eventually becomes the enemy. At-home becomes trapped, aging-in-place, isolated from people and overwhelmed by things. We’re resolved to embrace Wendy and not become trapped in our Peter Pan House, no matter how perfect the lake cabin feels today.

Are you counting on being Peter Pan? Or do you plan to be the sensible Wendy?


6/3/2019 URBAN WIRE: American Seniors Prefer to “Age in Place”—But What’s the Right Place?