Antero Pietila: Drafting a will helps plan for life?s unexpected turns

Opinion,Antero Pietila

This was not supposed to happen to us, only to other people.

While my wife, Barbara, worked in the garden one Saturday in July, nausea and a terrible headache incapacitated her. A scan at nearby Sinai Hospital confirmed a blood vessel had burst in her brain.

Thanks to an eight-hour operation by a Johns Hopkins team led by Dr. Richard Clatterbuck, Barbara is mending. One day, she may be able to return to her passions ? quilting and jewelry-making. But Dr. Lawrence Lichtenstein told me things willnever quite be the same. The former Johns Hopkins professor of medicine should know: His wife underwent a similar operation.

We had partially prepared for this life-altering crisis by creating wills. And several years ago we moved from a huge pre-Civil War Victorian hulk, with six floors and setps to match, to a rancher, where most of the space sits on one level. But our preparations proved inadequate. For example, I did not know my wife?s credit card obligations, nor where she kept other important documents.

I should have asked her for this information because after the rupture but before the operation, she kept her memory. But as I held her hand, those questions did not occur to me. Our predicament would have been even more disastrous if our situations were reversed.

Barbara would not have known our overall financial situation, nor how to access investments and retirement accounts. While she kept a copy of my life insurance policy, I cannot find it in her files.

So here is Lesson No. 1: Calamities often strike without a warning. Make sure that both partners in your family know all aspects of your finances and record keeping. Failing to do so is an invitation to a disaster. Trust me.

Lesson No. 2: Plan your living situation in advance so that you can cope with a debilitating emergency. We thought we had done so by moving to a rancher, and our present situation works.

But while our home is a wonderful place, with many intelligent design solutions and a good traffic flow, the doors and corridors are too narrow to accommodate a wheelchair, if need be.

And the bathrooms lack no-slip surfaces and grab bars to prevent accidental falls.

Our rancher was built in 1960, so some of those deficiencies are due to age. But despite the swelling senior citizen population, most builders still construct new homes without modifications suitable for handicapped living.

I simply cannot understand this ? baby boomers drive a significant portion of the housing market. As they get older, they can expect a multitude of health problems.

Despite this, many builders construct homes with doors narrower than 32 inches, preventing wheelchair access. Neither do they provide other handicapped-friendly amenities.

Over the years I have discussed the situation with Jo Fisher, of Linthicum. She modified a 14-foot-wide East Baltimore rowhouse 15 years ago to demonstrate how people with handicaps could live in familiar surroundings.

Her hope was that her so-called Idea House would encourage others to make similar alterations. But nothing happened.

Since then, Jo Fisher has advocated universal design, the building industry?s name for handicapped-friendly features, in Howard and Baltimore counties.

Her point is that wider doors, hallways and handicapped-friendly bathrooms do not add to building costs when made a part of the original design and construction.

Jo Fisher found a mixed bag in Howard County: "Some, like Dale Thompson Builders at Scot?s Glen and Beazer at The Gatherings are doing a fine job, but others are doing almost nothing." Ditto for Baltimore County.

So here is Lesson No. 3: Shop for a home that would enable you and your family to stay comfortably in it even if an unforeseen health problem occurred.

Antero Pietila is writing a book about how bigotry shaped the Baltimore metropolitan area. His e-mail is
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