A Housing Crisis for Seniors

Last fall, I had to take the car keys away from an elderly relative who lives alone. This intervention should have happened much earlier, but when the day came it was one of the more emotionally wrenching things I’ve ever done. “Don’t take my car away,” he pleaded. “Without my car I don’t have a life.”

The fear he expressed is one shared by many older Americans, who, overwhelmingly, live in places where car travel is a necessity. And that number is skyrocketing: The population aged 65 and over is expected to grow to 79 million from 48 million in the next 20 years, and by 2035, one in three American households will be headed by someone 65 or older (and 9.3 million of those will be one-person households like my relative’s). A report just out from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard, “Projects and Implications for a Growing Population: Older Households 2015-2035 Housing,” reveals that this demographic shift will increase the need for affordable, safe housing that is well connected to services way beyond what current supply can meet.

My now-car-free relative is not the sort to sign up for one of those 55-plus communities promising sunshine, gardens and golf. Retirement was an eventuality that inspired in him not relief but dread. Fiercely independent, an old-school intellectual and, frankly, a bit of a loner, he insists on remaining in his suburban home (“I will die in this house” typically ends any conversation in which I suggest a move) — even if that home is slowly becoming a dangerous place for him to be in.

A new study from the Urban Land Institute’s Terwilliger Center for Housing, a nonprofit research group, shows that suburban areas surrounding the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the United States make up 79 percent of the population of those areas but accounted for 91 percent of population growth over the past 15 years (and three-quarters of people age 25 to 34 in these metro areas live in suburbs).

But suburban homes were originally designed, and for the most part still are, for young families — and for drivers. They are typically surrounded by other single-family houses. Lacking a fitter partner or a network of helpful neighbors and caring family members, older residents can end up feeling isolated, unable to do basic errands or keep up their property. Further, most suburbs are zoned to prevent any non-single-family housing from being built, whether multiunit projects or the seemingly benign granny flat.

We’ve got to change this paradigm.

Before she died, way too young, of breast cancer at 60, my mother used to say to me, only half-joking, “You promise you’re not going to put your mother in a home, are you?” She had vivid memories of her grandmother’s generally miserable experience at an old-age home.

Decades later, some progress has been made in rethinking these facilities (and they tend to be called “communities” now rather than “the home”), yet the unease about where one will end up as one ages is not at all unfounded. Better housing for older people exists at the lowest and the highest ends of the economic spectrum — for those who can afford luxury options and those who qualify for aid.

Really good options are limited, particularly for the middle class. A colleague of mine, bemoaning the lack of attention and care at his father’s pricey assisted-living center, put it this way: “It’s not like they’re worrying about cultivating repeat customers.”

Thoughtfully designed housing for older adults is not being created on a scale commensurate with the growing need. It’s not a market many architects or developers have embraced. Conversely, a disproportionate amount of attention has been focused on the presumed desires of millennials. We hear all the time that it’s that group that craves walkability, good transit and everything-at-their-doorstep amenities — and that only cities can provide it.

But what if these offerings weren’t exclusively urban? What if suburban communities could provide some of them? And what if more communities weren’t so keyed into specific demographics, maybe even aiming instead to serve multiple generations? Professionals are starting to pay attention, with some suggesting that the housing industry ditch the term “senior” altogether.

NORCs — naturally occurring retirement communities — are found most often in dense and vibrant cities like New York, and demonstrate how well cities can work for older people. But less than a quarter of older adults live in high-density areas, so demand is likely to increase for new housing options within existing suburbs and rural communities. While it wouldn’t be impossible for suburbs to morph into NORCs, it wouldn’t be easy. Zoning precludes a lot of the mixed-use (stores, restaurants, multifamily housing) that is required, as does Nimbyism (the “not in my backyard” syndrome). But we already have many of the tools for incremental transformation.

The social safety net that helped provide so much of what we’re talking about here has evaporated; it has to re-emerge in new ways. As I’ve observed over the years when writing about topics from communes to urban agriculture, much of this is so old-fashioned as to seem innovative.

New York University recently announced an initiative that matches students in need of housing with older people who have rooms to spare. Programs like Marin Villages, in Northern California, put together networks of volunteers to organize activities, cultivate community and supply rides and other services to seniors, though it does not offer housing.

Co-housing, if it can shed its 1960s hippie commune associations, which doesn’t square with how these communities operate today, is another path toward providing community and care for all ages. The homebuilder Lennar is offering houses with a range of floor plans to accommodate varied family stages and needs. De-stigmatizing housing for older people through good design, as architects like David Baker and Anne Fougeron are doing in California, is also heartening, as is Perkins Eastman’s recently released report on biophilic design in senior housing (in non-architect-speak, integrating nature into architecture).

Technology can be part of the solution, though not without some tweaks. I’ve been engaged in a slow-moving campaign to convince my newly nondriving relative of the safety, convenience and economic savings of using the car services Lyft and Uber, but the transition isn’t an easy one. Summoning these cars is a no-brainer for heavy users of smartphones, but for older people with declining vision and motor skills, it’s a puzzle. (Why is it nearly impossible to telephone one of these services? It shouldn’t be.)

On-demand delivery services (meals, groceries, medicine) can also help bridge the gap, with the caveat that receiving everything at your doorstep can increase isolation (that goes for all ages). Expect a slew of “smart” products to hit the marketplace soon, some actually smart (some probably really stupid) that include “time to take your medication” notification systems, wearables that deploy airbags in case of a fall or aid in walking and sitting.

The difficulties inside the home are significant, and homes themselves must evolve and adapt as their residents age. And again, there are existing fixes: universal design elements such as step-free entrances, single-floor living, under-counter appliances, and halls and doorways that accommodate wheelchairs. Many of these could be standard, yet, typically, they’re renovations done after the need for them arises.

Every day for the next 19 years, 10,000 people will reach age 65. That companies aren’t scrambling to exploit this market is not only unfortunate for their bottom line, but almost certainly treacherous, eventually, for all of us.

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