The May issue of the health policy journal, Health Affairs, includes a short but important article by two researchers from Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. Its title poses the central question of their essay, “what can be done to better support older adults to age successfully in their homes and communities?” They begin with the observation that most of the literature on “supportive housing” for older people focuses on the 20 percent of people over 75 who need significant help to function day to day (many of whom are in fact over 85). They go on to point out that the remaining 80 percent face challenges as well—mobility limitations, impaired night vision—that while not nearly as restrictive as the problems of their counterparts with frailty or dementia, are nonetheless important issues that are seldom addressed from a public policy perspective. And with the over 75-year-olds numbering 14 million today and expected to double by 2038, 80 percent represents a great many people whose housing needs are projected to be inadequate.
In fact, while the vast majority of older people say, when surveyed, that they want to stay in whatever home they live in now, that may prove difficult at best. Consider the major threat to successful independent living, impaired mobility. Only 3.5 percent of homes today offer single floor living with no steps to the entrance. Many do not have hallways that are wide enough to comfortably accommodate assistive devices. Retrofitting a two-story home with a curving staircase—and, let’s say, no first-floor bathroom or bedroom—may be prohibitively expensive or impossible altogether. Then there’s transportation from the older person’s home to stores, libraries, doctor’s offices, or movie theaters which, in many rural or suburban locations, is nonexistent.
What Christopher Herbert and Jennifer Molinsky advocate in their article is a variety of public policy steps to help. They mention tax credits for renovations and programs that provide coordination of care, perhaps modeled on PACE (program of all-inclusive care for the elderly), though that is currently based in adult day health centers and is more suitable for the frail than for the slightly impaired. They allude to NORCs (naturally occurring retirement communities) without mentioning them by name as a model that facilitates on-site assistance by concentrating a large group of people in one area.
But in the end, the authors are forced to make an appeal for building new accessible, multifamily buildings with elevators in walkable urban centers. And it’s not just urban planners—if cities still hire such people—who need to push for this model; it’s also older people themselves. A good place to start is to educate people as they turn seventy and older that they may want to think about the long run and move before they are forced to. They should choose a housing arrangement, if they can afford to, where they can truly age in place.