Commentary

Our next big policy challenge: Safe and affordable housing for our aging population | Ray E. Landis

We want seniors to ‘age in place’ — but that’s not as easy as it sounds for many Americans

November 4, 2021 6:30 am

The list of issues impacting older Americans is long and varied, but none are as perplexing or important for public officials as the basic question of where seniors will live as our population ages.

Each morning I wake up to the sounds of construction just beyond my backyard in suburban Harrisburg. A large townhouse community is expanding as builders hurry to take advantage of a robust housing market, with the new units being sold as quickly as they can be finished.

These townhouses are narrow three-story homes with two car garages. They are not designed to be fancy but have three bedrooms, three baths, and are selling for over $250,000. And they are a good example of how new home construction is failing to recognize how our demographics are changing.

For years the mantra of advocates for the older population has been “aging in place.” The concept is people want to remain in their own homes and communities as they get older. Aging in place has been used as a foil to the idea of seniors being forced to move to long-term care facilities as they age and need services or assistance.

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But the homes many families lived in as they worked and raised children are not necessarily places accommodating for older people. There is often extra space once children leave home, but empty rooms are not the real problem.

Steep stairways to the basement or bedrooms, the lack of grab bars or railings, and faulty maintenance in and outside of the home are the true concerns because they are dangerous for the elderly. The Centers for Disease Control reports each year 3 million older people are treated in emergency departments for fall-related injuries, with most of the falls occurring at home. The death rate from injuries related to falls for seniors increased 30% from 2007 to 2016.

This problem is most acute in the places where it is the most difficult to address. Drive through any city or borough in Pennsylvania and you’ll see older homes lining the streets. Knock on a door and there is a good chance someone older than 60 will answer.

Many of these individuals rely on Social Security and a small pension if they’re lucky and simply do not have the resources to make the improvements to their home which would make it safer for them to grow older there.

These are the individuals and couples most likely to need services or assistance as they get older. The concept of aging in place should be able to help, because aging in place is a notion of remaining within your community, near your friends, neighbors, and family.  It doesn’t necessarily mean growing older within the same walls where you have been living, but it does require a place to live – and this is where the townhouses I can see from my kitchen window raise concerns.

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At first glance, a townhouse community seems to be what older homeowners are looking for. Everything in the home is new, there is no yard to take care of, and snow removal is a part of the monthly maintenance fee. But there is a catch.

These townhouses not only have more bedrooms than the potential older buyer needs, but they are also on three levels. That means more steps, which increases the potential of falls. The steps may be fine for the 65-year-old ready to downsize from their single-family home, but they may present more of a problem as the homeowner grows older.

Equally as problematic is the cost. Affordability is likely to be a concern for many older adults looking for a place that fits their needs better than the home where they raised a family. Most older people may not be able to assume a mortgage after they turn 65, meaning this type of new construction is beyond their financial reach.

What is the solution? Smaller, less expensive single-story cottages or duplexes are possibilities, but they are not being built in the number or in areas our changing demographics necessitate. The availability of alternatives to multi-level homes is not the only problem, however. Convincing people it may be in their best interest to leave the physical home they have lived in for years is a major dilemma, and there is no easy answer to address this reluctance.

Another concern is reflected in the growing economic disparity that is becoming increasingly prevalent in the older population. Those with sufficient resources can choose to adapt their current homes to be more age-friendly or move to a more comfortable living situation. But those struggling with fixed and limited incomes do not have the financial means to make such choices.

The townhouses near my home may address a housing need today. But if we don’t want to have large parts of our older population without a safe place to live in the future, we also need to build adaptable and affordable housing options for older Americans-and we need to start now.

Opinion contributor Ray E. Landis writes about the issues that matter to older Pennsylvanians. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter @RELandis.

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