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Preparing for Change: Housing an Aging Population

Image of a man and a young girl outside watering flowers with a watering can.
Localities can employ housing strategies, such as allowing accessory dwelling units, to enable seniors with disabilities and debilitating health conditions to live close to family caregivers and avoid some of the costs of long-term care.
The United States will experience major demographic changes in the coming decades, including the rapid aging of its population. In 2012, 13.4 percent of the nation’s inhabitants were aged 65 and over. By 2040, this age cohort is expected to nearly double in size, accounting for close to 21 percent of the total population. As we have covered on the Edge and in Evidence Matters before, critical to maintaining the quality of life for older adults is the availability of safe, accessible, and affordable housing connected to transportation, health, and other community services. The current supply of such housing, however, is insufficient to meet the needs of this fast growing demographic necessitating sweeping action at all levels of the public and private sectors. These are some of the findings in a new report, “Housing America’s Older Adults: Meeting the Needs of an Aging Population,” prepared by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. The report was released on September 2, 2014, at an event cohosted by the Joint Center and AARP Foundation in Washington, DC. Chris Herbert, the Joint Center’s acting managing director, presented highlights from the report, followed by a keynote address by former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, who also spoke at the PD&R’s Quarterly Update held in January 2014 on visions for aging in place. The event also included a panel discussion with practitioners working on issues related to aging.

Challenges Ahead

A vast majority of adults prefer to age in place in their homes and communities, and as Cisneros stressed in his keynote speech, access to affordable and age-appropriate housing is a crucial first step toward realizing this goal. Location also can present a challenge for seniors wishing to age in place. A majority of adults over age 50 currently live in low-density suburban and rural areas with little or no access to public transit; they have to drive to go to grocery stores and doctors’ appointments or visit family and friends. Car ownership declines with age, however, and without access to public transit or alternative modes of transportation, the elderly face social isolation and deterioration in their quality of life.

These issues are only going to intensify as the population of older adults grows, but “the good news is that there is time to prepare.” The panelists listed several strategies and best practices to improve the affordability, accessibility, and connectivity of the nation’s housing stock that can be improved upon and ramped up to scale to deal with the challenges ahead.

Housing Strategies

One of the primary mechanisms that localities can utilize to increase housing choices for seniors at all income levels is zoning to allow a variety of residential options, such as accessory dwelling units, multifamily housing, cohousing, and mixed-use developments. Promoting the development of these diverse housing options in close proximity to public transit facilities and within walkable and pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods increases the mobility and independence of older adults. Panelist Terri Ludwig, president and chief executive officer of Enterprise Community Partners, points to the organization’s Green Communities Criteria, currently embedded in the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Qualified Allocation Plans of several states. Proposed affordable housing projects that are located near transit and incorporate pedestrian-friendly infrastructure are given priority in the certification process.

Beyond transportation access, facilities such as community and senior centers that offer meal programs and recreational and wellness activities can be valuable resources to help older adults avoid social isolation. Cross-sector partnerships among government agencies, nonprofits, and faith-based and cultural institutions can also offer a comprehensive array of services and programs to promote senior participation in society. For example, Age-friendly NYC, a partnership among New York City’s Office of the Mayor, the New York City Council, and the New York Academy of Medicine, includes several initiatives to improve the quality of life of the city’s elderly residents. One of these initiatives involves partnering with a local building service workers’ union to reach out to seniors who are at risk of social isolation. Panelist Lindsay Goldman, Age-friendly NYC’s project director, explains that building service workers such as superintendents and doormen are trained to identify signs of elder abuse and cognitive decline and direct tenants to seek help.

In terms of accessibility, adopting ordinances requiring developers to include visitability and universal design features in new homes and modifications to existing stock can ensure that housing is well suited for the elderly. To encourage the inclusion of accessibility features, Herbert and Cisneros suggest providing tax incentives and low-interest loans and expanding or adapting existing federal programs, such as the Community Development Block Grant, to finance renovations.

For seniors with disabilities and debilitating health conditions, accessory dwelling units enable them to live close to family caregivers and avoid some of the costs of long-term care. There are also several nonprofit models that the Joint Center report highlights that integrate housing and supportive services for the aging in a cost-effective manner. Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities Support Services Programs offer a targeted service delivery model where supportive services are provided in areas with a high concentration of older adults. Ultimately, underscored experts at the event, increased federal funding for programs such as HUD’s Section 202 Supportive Housing for the Elderly is vital for meeting the demand for affordable alternatives to institutional care.

Act Now

Both the report and the event reinforce the message that building the physical and social infrastructure to meet the future needs of an aging population needs to start now. With the shortage of public funds and budget cuts, it would be advantageous for the government, nonprofit, and private sectors to break down silos and collaborate to implement strategic solutions. In addition, families and individuals need to take account of their financial well-being and prepare well in advance to meet the challenges of aging.

For more information on strategies to meet the housing needs of older adults, please see the Fall 2013 issue of Evidence Matters.