Jim Monahan, 74, of Long Beach, works in the kitchen...

Jim Monahan, 74, of Long Beach, works in the kitchen of his Long Beach home. Monahan uses his custom counters and reaching tools as an aid him while cooking. "I'm dependent on others for basic human needs. It's frustrating, but I'm grateful for the help I receive," says Monahan, who was paralyzed after a construction accident in January 1988. (June 6, 2011) Credit: Chris Ware

While working as a steamfitter years ago, Jim Monahan moved a sheet of tin and fell into an unmarked hole. The hole was only 3 feet deep, but the accident left him paralyzed from the chest down.

Monahan was 51 at the time. During the three months he spent in rehabilitation, his wife, Mary Lou, put a plan into action that would allow them to stay in the two-story Long Beach home they loved. That was 23 years ago, and the modifications made after his Jan. 15, 1988, fall have allowed Monahan, now 74, and Mary Lou, 69, to age in place.

"Age in place" is a phrase being used by experts to describe people staying in their own homes as they grow older, avoiding nursing homes or assisted living facilities for as long as they can. It's a lifestyle being encouraged by public and private sectors as the tidal wave of boomers in this country begins to reach retirement age.

The concept is supported with programs and services being offered to help seniors plan for how they'll live the future, when they may begin to lose mobility or become disabled.

And it's a lifestyle of choice. In an AARP survey, close to three out of four respondents said they agreed with this statement: "What I'd really like to do is stay in my current residence for as long as possible." The survey was done in 2000, and experts say the sentiment's the same.

The Monahans love their home for all of its amenities. The boardwalk and sand dunes of this beachfront community are a short walk away. From his bed, Monahan can hear the ocean at night. Renovating their home to accommodate his disabilities has made their wish to remain there a reality.

But it took planning and resources. While Monahan spent months in rehab, Mary Lou had an elevator installed at the front of the house to lift his wheelchair to a deck adjoining the living area.

Doorways, including the entrance to the bathroom, were widened to accommodate his wheelchair. And space was set aside on the lower level for live-in help in case his wife predeceases him.

In the kitchen, a pedestal sink allows Monahan wheelchair access. The countertop can be extended and lowered, making it easier for him to cook and bake. Even his transportation was well-planned. Family and friends held a benefit to buy him a custom van with a wheelchair ramp and hand controls.

"Thank God everything was in place," Monahan said in a recent interview. "Independence is the whole thing. I have my wife and the accessibility of my house and van to let me continue doing most of what I did before" the accident.

"The optimum is to be able to stay in your own home with somebody living in who can help you," Mary Lou said. "We're all set up."

Experts say that older adults who want to age in place hope to retain their independence, to be near family and friends, their own doctors, shopping, recreation and all things familiar. Eventually, they may require support systems and newer technology to stay at home.

To raise awareness of what is needed to age in place successfully, the Town of North Hempstead, North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System, the National Center for Suburban Studies and the Sociology Department at Hofstra University are sponsoring a conference, Aging in Place in Suburbia: Strategies for Success, on Aug. 24.

"Families, not-for-profits, local governments and state and federal counterparts need to find new ways that will allow seniors to grow old in their homes," said Larry Levy, the center's executive dean. "It's less expensive, and all data suggest it's usually better for their health."

Anticipating a growing demand, "The private, public and nonprofit sectors are busy designing products and programs to facilitate aging in place," said Evelyn Roth, head of elderly services for the Town of North Hempstead, which was named one of the Top 10 places to retire by Money magazine in 2009.

"We are seeing everything from an electronic device that alerts an adult child in California when her mother in New York takes [or fails to take] her medication . . . to home movers who specialize in redesigning the home with the safety and convenience of the aging resident in mind."

The conference will feature keynote speaker Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and experts in all the "cutting edge" areas for boomers who are retired or close to it. Featured will be new exercises to improve balance, money management advice, transportation, social services support and home renovations. "With the baby boomer generation reaching retirement," Roth said, "aging in place supports will be in more demand than ever in the coming years."

Both Nassau and Suffolk have programs to support aging in place. In Nassau, there are lunch programs for seniors, day care programs for those with dementia, health counseling and other services. (Call the Aging and Disability Resource Center at 516-227-8900.)

In Suffolk, programs include Meals on Wheels and a repair program for small homes, where the towns pay for labor and the recipients pay for materials. (Call 631-853-8200 for information about other programs and services.)

"That's our mission, to keep people independent in their home," Holly Rhodes-Teague, director of Suffolk County's Office for the Aging, said.

Often, the private sector picks up where public services end. For those who can afford it, a network of private organizations, professionals and companies can be helpful.

Nille Naidamast, 85, who has Alzheimer's, reluctantly left her home in Great Neck to live with her daughter, Ellie Austin, in Dix Hills. To help with the transition, Austin hired Ellen Blank and Lynn Kleinman, owners of Senior Adult Move Management Services of Great Neck, to downsize and sell Naidamast's possessions, put her house on the market, and assess what her needs would be in Dix Hills.

"Mom didn't want to leave her home," Austin said. "I tried to keep her there as long as possible." Her mother, who has 24-hour home health care, uses a geriatric chair designed for long-term sitting, and Austin plans to build a backyard deck and ramp so her mother can go outdoors.

There's also help for those who have physical limitations but still need to drive. Peter Zarba is a sales manager for Braunability, a company that customizes state-of-the-art accessible vans for drivers with disabilities. He needed such a vehicle after suffering a spinal cord injury in a car accident during his freshman year at Hofstra.

"A person with an arthritic hand who can't turn a key can push a button to put the car in drive," Zarba said. "It's a means to quality of life."

Aging-in-place conference and expo

Where. Hofstra University, student center

When. Aug. 24, 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Admission. Free

More info. Call 516-869-6311or email projectindependence@northhempsteadny.gov

The conference will take place in the auditorium, which seats 350, so registration is necessary and will be first-come-first-served (see below to pre-register).

The expo will have about 70 vendors demonstrating products and services for seniors. No registration is required to attend only the expo.

North Hempstead's Evelyn Roth said the first 500 attendees will receive a $10 voucher for lunch in the cafeteria.