Published in Pawtucket Times, on September 12, 2014
In the coming decades, America’s aging population is expected to skyrocket, but the nation is not ready to confront the housing needs of those age 50 and over, warns a new report released last week by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies and AARP Foundation. While it is expected that the number of adults in the U.S. aged 50 and over is expected to grow to 133 million by 2030, an increase of more than 70 percent since 2000, housing that is affordable, physically accessible, well-located, and coordinated with supports and services is in too short supply, says the Harvard report released on Sept. 2.
According to Harvard Report, Housing America’s Older Adults – Meeting the Needs of An Aging Population, housing stock is critical to quality of life for people of all ages, but especially for aging baby boomers and seniors. High housing costs currently force a third of adults 50 and over—including 37 percent of those 80 and over—to pay more than 30 percent of their income for homes that may or may not fit their needs, forcing them to cut back on food, health care, and, for those 50-64, retirement savings.
Challenges and Issues
The Harvard report also noted that much of the nation’s housing stock lacks basic accessibility features (such as no-step entries, extra-wide doorways and lever-style door and faucet handles, and insufficient lighting, preventing older persons with disabilities from living safely and comfortably at home. Moreover, walkways, bike lanes, buses, subways, and other public transportation are not available to a majority of older adults who live in suburban and rural locations. They become isolated from family and friends without the ability to drive. Finally, disconnects between housing programs and the health care system put many older adults with disabilities or long-term care needs at risk of premature, costly institutionalization and readmission to hospitals.
“Recognizing the implications of this profound demographic shift and taking immediate steps to address these issues is vital to our national standard of living,” says Chris Herbert, acting managing director of the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. “While it is ultimately up to individuals and their families to plan for future housing needs, it is also incumbent upon policy makers at all levels of government to see that affordable, appropriate housing, as well as supports for long-term aging in the community, are available for older adults across the income spectrum.”
*Tackling the Challenges
“What jumped out at us from this study is that when it comes to where people want to live as they age, the ‘field of view,’ if you will, has very quickly widened. People today are thinking about this at a younger age with expectations that are vastly different from their parents’ assumptions,” observes AARP State Director Kathleen Connell. “Most people are worried that retirement savings will not cover their long-term needs. They want housing that is affordable, physically accessible and well-located. But they also realize that, eventually, they’ll need coordination with supports and services. The challenges have never been more evident.
“There are many ways to approach this, with choosing healthier lifestyles very high on the list. But the report makes it clear that where we live matters,” Connell continued. “Growing older in car-dependent suburban and rural locations is a real problem because pedestrian infrastructure is generally unfriendly if you have stopped driving. That leads to isolation, which can severely compound just about any negative that comes with aging. And if access to the health care system is restricted, many older adults – especially those with disabilities – are candidates for more costly premature institutionalization. We need to pre-empt that cycle by building communities where people can better age in place
The Harvard report notes that the older population in the U.S. will continue to exponentially grow with the large number of younger baby boomers who are now in their 50s. With lower incomes, wealth, homeownership rates, and more debt than generations before them, members of this large age group may be unable to cover the costs of appropriate housing or long-term care in their retirement years.
Indeed, while a majority of people over 45 would like to stay in their current residences as long as possible, estimates indicate that 70 percent of those who reach the age of 65 will eventually need some form of long-term care. In this regard, older homeowners are in a better position than older renters when they retire. The typical homeowner age 65 and over has enough wealth to cover the costs of in-home assistance for nearly nine years or assisted living for 6 and half years. The typical renter, however, can only afford two months of these supports.
“As Americans age, the need for safe and affordable housing options becomes even more critical,” says Lisa Marsh Ryerson, President of the AARP Foundation. “High housing costs, aging homes, and costly repairs can greatly impact those with limited incomes. The goal in our support of this report is to address the most critical needs of these households and it is AARP Foundation’s aim to provide the tools and resources to help them meet these needs now and in the future.”
Making Your Community Livable
Even with this alarming report that calls on policy makers to confront the looming housing crisis for the nation’s old, a large majority of aging boomers have not reached the age where their housing needs become a serious problem. For those choosing to age in place in their community they can plan ahead to improve their future housing options.
“AARP is committed to this because we know it’s what most people want. That’s why we encourage residents to participate in how streets, roads, sidewalks, crosswalks are designed as well as make their thoughts known on decisions regarding access to recreational space.”
On Sept. 19, AARP Rhode Island will host an Active Living Workshop at Kirkbrae Country Club in Lincoln. Nationally recognized expert Dan Burden will lead the event, which will focus on proposed improvements along New River Road in Lincoln – specifically in the village of Manville. Representatives of the RI Department of Transportation will be on hand to discuss the project and hear suggestions to make this neighborhood more walkable. Mr. Burden will conduct a sidewalks and streets survey, followed by a discussion. The one day event, involving both a classroom style session and a community walking audit, is free and includes breakfast and lunch. You can sign up by logging on to www. aarp.org/ri. Or, you can call Deborah Miller at 401-248-2654.
According to AARP Rhode Island, the goals of this bring together residents, government and elected officials to promote a shared language.
Groups invited to participate include Lincoln town officials, Lincoln Senior Services, the Bicycle Coalition, the Lincoln Police Department, the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, GrowSmart, the RI Department of Health and the Northern RI Chamber of Commerce.
To access Housing America’s Older Adults – Meeting the Needs of An Aging Population, go to http://www.jchs.harvard.edu/housing-americas-older-adults-embargoed.
Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.