Housing and the “Elder-Friendly” Community

By Mary L. Fett, Ph.D.

Here is a challenge:  Name five places in your community where old people can be found.  I’ll give you a minute.  OK.  What did you come up with?  Depending on how old you are, you may have no idea or you may have easily compiled a list.

Where Have All the Old Folks Gone?

In today’s mobile environment, it is unusual for multiple generations to reside in the same home, neighborhood, or even community.  Some of this is geographically dictated.  Some of this is economic.

If you are in your late 70’s, 80’ or 90s, you may be living in a lifecare residence, assisted living, or perhaps you are in a long-term care facility.

If you are 65 or older, you may have already sold the family home and moved to a 55+ community.  Maybe you downsized after the kids left home and took the equity in your other house and put it to work for you in your retirement years.active-adult-55-plus

If you are 35 – 40 years old, you are probably either buying your first home or taking out a second mortgage in order to finance your children’s post high-school experience.  You will most likely have your adult children back in the home with you in the not too distant future, because they can’t afford to buy on their own.

What kind of Housing is Available for Older Adults?

In the United States, housing for aging adults falls into three distinct categories for those who have financial resources:  single family dwellings or condos, assisted living and/or lifecare facilities, and long-term care.  If you don’t have financial resources, your choices are limited:  single-occupancy hotels, Section 8 vouchers, or homelessness.

With Money Fixed Income
Home ownership Rental
Assisted living Section 8 Voucher
Long-term care Homelessness

There are degrees of shelter that exist within each of the categories, but what is missing from the equation is a consistent policy on the part of local communities, state governments, and the federal government to address the disparity.

According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, housing should be considered a right that involves “living somewhere in security, peace and dignity.”  And, it should be available to “all persons irrespective of income or access to economic resources.”

Criteria to meet these standards includes:

  • Legal security of tenure
  • Availability of services, materials, facilities and infrastructure
  • Affordability
  • Habitability
  • Accessibility
  • Location
  • Cultural adequacy

What Does this Mean for Your Community?

The Center for Aging and Values has compiled a housing metric that can be used as a conversation starter for community-based groups or government committees tasked with identifying and creating adequate housing in your community.  Here are the basics:

  • Sufficient supply of housing units across all levels of need (e.g., independent, assisted, supported, and skilled, memory care)
  • Laws in place to protect renters and owners; access to systems of arbitration
  • Financial resources available to assist in purchase, rent, life-care
  • Qualified workers for maintenance and upkeep

Supply  Just counting homes and/or units does not address the fluid nature of population growth and change.  The Baby Boomers are going to fill assisted living and skilled nursing beds for the next 20-30 years.  But when they finally die off, there will be lots of empty units and beds.  Planning now for that ebb tide after the Silver Tsunami passes is essential for the economic stability of a community.  For example, all those houses built in Sun City, Oakmont, and other 55+ communities around the country will be on the market with no buyers.  Planning for that eventuality will insure adequate sustainability and tax bases.elderApts

Laws take time to write and implement.  Current systems of arbitration favor landlords over renters, yet there are more and more renters that need recourse.  We have seen this played out after this past year of disasters where rental units across the country were lost to floods, fires, hurricanes, and earthquakes.  Finding ways to make housing equitable and financially viable for both renters and owners is essential to the economic stability of all communities.

Financing housing start-ups needs more assistance from lenders and from the Federal government.  The current political climate is NOT conducive to stable investment by lenders, nor is there consensus at the state or federal level with our elected officials.  Local communities need to invest locally, but can and should take advantage of financing and funding from around the country.  These are long-term, big picture items that take leadership in partnership with well-informed community members.  The bottom line needs to be affordable housing that will create stable economic growth, not elder ghettos and long-term warehousing of frail elders.

Workers  Finally, there needs to be sufficient numbers of workers who can build, maintain, and adapt housing to meet the changing needs of older adults.  Skilled workers in all vocational trades are needed not just in the building of units.  Adequate pay for these services is also needed.  The outcome of this two-pronged collaboration is younger workers being able to afford to live in the community they work in.

“Elder-Friendly Community”

Housing is just one aspect of an elder-friendly community.  Having older adults as part of the fabric of a neighborhood or town instead of housing them out of sight in some elder ghetto represents a return to how things used to be.  I am not being nostalgic here.  I am pointing out that if elders are seen and valued, the community itself benefits.  And that is a good thing for everybody.

Check back here for more on what makes up an Elder Friendly Community!

Thanks for reading!

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