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8 Ways to Improve Senior Housing

Philip Moeller

Retirement income and healthcare affordability have been widely cited as growing challenges to an aging society. Now, according to a new report, housing should also take its place as an enormous unmet need for rising numbers of older Americans. "Housing an Aging Population--Are We Prepared?", a report by the nonprofit Center for Housing Policy in Washington, says the answer in most cases is a clear "No."

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"Considerable attention is focused on the rising healthcare costs of an aging population--and rightly so," the report says. "But the housing and supportive services needs faced by the very same people receive comparatively little notice. Even today, federally subsidized rental programs meet the needs of only about one in four eligible households regardless of age."

Nearly half of lower-income older Americans spend more than half of their income on housing, and roughly a quarter spend between 30 and 50 percent, the report says. As people get older, housing requires ever-larger percentages of income. "The incomes of older adults tend to decline with age--as reflected in rising poverty rates," it explains. "But property taxes, maintenance, and utility costs all tend to rise over time for both older homeowners and renters."

Even the good news about gains in longevity is cause for concern, the Center says. Growing numbers of seniors are reaching their 80s and 90s. Many of them will be disabled and require special housing assistance. There are now more than 26 million households that include at least one person age 65 or older. Nearly 40 percent of them, or 10 million, include at least one disabled senior.

If they stay in their own homes and age in place, these seniors will need potentially costly changes to improve their home's safety and accessibility. "Given the strong desire of most older adults to age in place," the report says, "it is important to expand access to the services that many individuals need to live independently, such as meal preparation; assistance with bathing, dressing, or grooming; assistance taking daily medication; and housekeeping services."

In many cases, disabled seniors would receive better care and social support if they moved into apartments and other group assisted-living facilities. But there are not enough such units to meet the need, and the ones that do exist are too expensive for many older people.

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Even now, government housing programs are overwhelmed by senior demand and underfunded to meet current needs. The scale of the problem will only grow as the number of older Americans increases. "By 2050, the population of individuals aged 65 or older will increase 120 percent from 40 million to more than 88 million," the report says. "One in every five Americans will be 65+. The numbers of Americans aged 85 or older will more than triple over the same period to 19 million."

The Center did not put any price tag on what it might cost to address the nation's growing senior housing problem. It did recommend action--and a "sense of urgency"--in eight areas:

1. Make homes more affordable. Lower-income seniors would get property-tax relief and older renters would qualify for housing vouchers.

2. Assist with home modification. Low-income homeowners and qualifying landlords would get assistance to retrofit dwelling units to make them senior-friendly and safer.

3. Connect residents to social services. Expand existing caregiving support programs to provide older residents with either home-based or institutional caregiving support, including help for activities of daily living.

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4. Expand transportation options. Lack of public transportation and volunteer driving services is one of the more serious problems, preventing seniors from normal activities and adding to an unhealthy isolation for those who cannot easily leave their homes.

5. Encourage universal design in new homes. New government subsidized housing should be required to be friendly to seniors, and local building codes should be changed as needed to encourage developers of senior-friendly housing.

6. Create flexible zoning rules. Diverse housing mixes and high-density rental units should be encouraged with zoning changes, along with efforts to put housing units within walking distance of shopping and other commercial activities.

7. Preserve and expand the supply of affordable rental housing. More funds and support are needed to maintain the viable housing that now exists as well as build more.

8. Enhance consumer choice. Different housing models are needed, including public and private efforts, to provide people with wider living choices and also develop more successful solutions that combine senior living, healthcare, and social needs.

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