Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

Design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

Housing an Aging Population

By 2030, it is estimated that there will be 33M more seniors (65+) than there are today. A majority of these seniors-to-be are currently living in big homes in the suburbs. These are homes that require physical capabilities to maintain, financial wherewithal to afford and cars to access–all things that are difficult as one’s physical and financial resources diminish, as they tend to do when we get older. The mismatch of existing housing stock and an emergent aging population (and all that goes along with that) is the subject of a recent report by Harvard and the AARP called, “Housing America’s Older Adults—Meeting the Needs of an Aging Population.”

The exhaustive report details current population demographics and where things are heading in the realm of housing. While we cannot summarize the whole report, here are a few of its key findings:

  • Today, 47% of households under the age of 50 are couples with children under 18 at home or single parents, a share which falls to 9% of households in their late 50s and continues to drop among older age groups.
  • The increase in single-person households is the most dramatic change in household type after age 50–about 1/4 of households in their 50s consist of a single person, a share which rises to 1/3 of those in their 60s, 2/5 households in their 70s, and 3/5 aged 80 and over.
  • Most older adults own single-family homes, including over 2/3 of those aged 50-64, nearly three-quarters of those aged 65-79, and three-fifths of those aged 80 and over.
  • Mobility rates continue to decline among those in their 60s and beyond, with a small increase around age 85. In 2011, 60% of households aged 80 and older and 47% of those aged 65-79 had lived in the same residence for 20 or more years.
  • In 2012, 1/3 of adults aged 50 and over—nearly 20 million households—were cost-burdened, meaning they paid over 30% of their income for housing.
  • Even though most older adults drive, 61% limited their driving to certain hours of the day, and around 21% stated that they frequently or occasionally miss out on activities they like to do because of driving limitations.

To summarize the above points, there is a rapidly growing population of older adults who today live with their kids in the suburbs in single-family homes. These same folks will be empty-nesters in the near future, leaving them with big, mostly empty homes. The likelihood of them downsizing and moving to more accessible housing based on current trends is low–at least before age 80. A high number of seniors today are cost-burdened by their homes, a trend that’s expected to continue given the increasing rates of housing and non-housing debt. Driving becomes a big issue as people get older, making car-dependent living problematic for older adults.

Not to get all bleak about it, but the report suggests a possible future with large populations of older adults stranded in the suburbs, living in needlessly-large, unsafe homes they cannot afford or maintain. The public and personal ramifications could be huge. The report says, older adults will “sacrifice spending on other necessities including food, undermining their health and well-being”; older adults will be isolated from friends and family; and “disconnects between housing programs and the health care system put many older adults with disabilities or long-term care needs at risk of premature institutionalization.”

One might assume that the large homes now occupied by future seniors will eventually be occupied by the Millennial generation, who in 10-20 years will presumably have children, careers and will want more space. Emily Badger of the Washington Post questions whether this will be the case. If current trends among Millennials continue, where centralized urban living is prized above space in the suburbs, the Millennials might end up hogging the centrally-located, amenity-rich housing, driving housing costs higher than most seniors can afford, leaving them to fend for themselves in the burbs.

We won’t suggest that we have an easy answer for this most difficult topic, but we will suggest that micro and other compact housing is one logical direction. Smaller spaces are far easier to maintain than large ones. They are often less expensive. They are often more conducive to social living as they are typically part of multifamily structures. And they are more likely to be centrally-located, obviating the need for car ownership.

The micro-housing conversation is almost invariably linked to young, single people: the ones who just got out of college and need an affordable, centrally located home; the ones who might be living with their parents and need a starter home before shacking up with a nice guy or girl; ones who work and play so much that they just need a place to sleep in between their exciting job at that startup during the day and fashion openings at night. What the Harvard/AARP report suggests is that micro-housing might be just as–or more–relevant to our growing aged populations as it is to young folks. Now it’s a matter of legislators and real estate developers to see this pressing need.

Seniors image via Shutterstock

  • Chris

    As one of the baby boomers, I agree that this is a major issue.

    I do see that there are opportunities as well as risks here.

    A lot of the home products, like Nest and the latest Apple and Android phones, are looking to create the connected home / person so that it will be possible to easily monitor people. And, potentially, notify children or other relatives when there are maintenance issues with the home.

    I could see an expansion of home delivery of food and other supplies. These people could, potentially, also be keeping an eye on people seeing who’s looking after their garden, etc.

    I do expect that we’ll see more active elder communities spring up where people can live independently but with support as needed.

    The biggest challenge maybe in finding someone to buy these homes so people can move to a more manageable home in a community that provides support.

    • Sarah Becky Kate

      Wow, there is a BIG elephant in the room here. White flight helped to build the burbs and now that the US version of apartheid no longer exists, the need to escape minorities is not such an over arching need for many young whites.

      There are plenty of decent and affordable places to live in NYC (where I’m from). (I would imagine the same holds true for many other larger and mid sized cities) My senior aunt is in an affordable studio apartment near the ocean – but oh – she doesn’t mind living near African American, Hispanic and other minority people. To date she has not been raped, robbed or otherwise accosted on the street. Cities are usually populated by the very wealthy and the very poor with a good deal of low-income and lower middle to middle middle class minority people distributed throughout. Growing up, I lived in an apartment in an all minority neighborhood and was never robbed or the victim of violence. All of my neighbors worked. I went to an excellent magnet high school school and graduated from college. Many of my cousins remain in NYC and own homes in the outer boroughs (Brooklyn, the Bronx), sent there children to college and are very comfortable. But again they live in minority neighborhoods so it’s affordable (thanks white flight) and have no plans to leave.

      Not all African American and minority folks live in the worst parts of town. Just as white folks distinguish between poor whites and other whites, there is also class separation in minority communities. I would not choose to live in a trailer park just because all the people who live there are white and in the same way I would not choose to live a LOWER class African American neighborhood just because I’m African American.

      • Chris

        I’m not from the US, I’m from the UK. So, “White Flight” to the suburbs isn’t really an issue. It doesn’t mean that the UK is free from racism and its issues, it’s not. But that’s a whole different discussion.

  • George Sears

    I love how everything becomes an iconic cliche. I can’t speak to urban living, but I assume it is not all bars and nice restaurants. What is clear is that many people will have limited incomes throughout their lives, simply because of the jobs that are available. So you already don’t have young people to buy (affordability) the large houses that have been built for 20 years. And if the young people with money don’t want them? Gosh, I guess this is a problem.

    They kind of built the absolute worst house possible in the 20 zeroes. We were told houses were phenomenal investments, just win-win-win. So the more you ‘invested’ in a house, the more your money would increase. But the big houses are now very poorly matched to buyers. The people who can afford houses are still buying the sizes that have prevailed. You have to figure people are still not accepting that housing could be a horrible investment, a sinkhole for cash and savings. There is real risk.

    If you live in the West you almost have to be in favor of ‘saving’ the suburbs. Without the suburbs, there isn’t much else to the cities I have known. They may rebuild, or build from scratch, the central core, but the mix of housing will be heavily weighted to the burbs.

    The West has relied on a model of growth and development that is almost certainly running on fumes. The real question, seems to me, is how to make it work as well as possible. If suburban housing starts to drop in value, in places that are not economically depressed, that will be an alarm bell. If people start to feel they are trapped, that’s not going to be good.

    Beyond pushing these stereotypes, this “urban density, youth driven, high energy lifestyle” versus “hideous, inefficient, socially isolated suburban meltdown” polarity, I think someone should ask what the intermediate solutions are. People in New York can do what is best for them, and they have the financial industry as an income backstop. The rest of us probably need to look for something that opens housing to lower middle class young people, and makes the over-large house as useful and marketable as possible. There are many places where mass transit is not going to work very well, so maybe we will end up with buses full of very unhappy people getting in fights. I don’t know what we will be able to afford in ten years, as a country.

    People are holding onto illusions, and I’m not convinced the happy urban model of single people in 300 sqft urban housing is entirely sound. Let’s see a lot more of it and figure out how people really do, how they get along. Let’s see how they get through the bleak winters and the hot summers.

    It’s another issue that seems completely polarized, with rather substantial economic consequences. Like, um, good luck to us. Look where the climate change debate ended up in this country. People are not going to let go of suburbia, but the problem will end up being an economic one. We are likely to see narrow economic interests hold sway long after we might have reached for intermediate solutions.

  • clarkbennett

    Where I live there are companies building 55+ communities filled with huge two and three bedroom homes so the problem isn’t just with suburbs.

  • bensmagginolia

    I will be 66 next week and am living in a wonderful little retirement apartment in the city. I owned my own home and cared for my dad till he passed several years ago. my daughter lived there too until she graduated from college and got married. the house was too much for me due to minor health concerns. I also sold my car at the same time because driving had become too difficult. if I cant be a good driver I don’t belong behind the wheel. I do take the bus or cab wherever I want to go and am pleased and content with my living situation today. staying in a big house by myself would have been foolish and a burden to my family. I feel pretty safe here and there is help close-by if I ever need it.

  • Ani

    Yes, yes, yes. This subject is going to be big and I’m glad to see you tackling it here. I see this in my work all the time with a mostly rural population with many aging or aged folks. Too many are rattling around homes that are too big for them, filled with stuff they are loathe to part with (or too overwhelmed by the thought of dealing with). They can’t afford to heat or maintain these homes and deterioration is setting in from leaky roofs, electrical and plumbing issues, failing steps etc. Some are no longer driving and are stuck until someone takes them shopping, etc. Others still drive to a degree but it’s a bit scary to consider some them doing so; I see people who have vision problems, confusion etc. still driving.

    Where are the places for them to move to if indeed they wanted to? As you note, urban areas with mass transit and high walk scores tend to be very expensive. I’d like to relocate to one such area eventually but don’t see how I’ll ever afford it. And for seniors living on Social Security, nabbing even a studio apt. in Boston, NYC, San Fran. etc. is not a possibility.

    So seems like we have 2 issues here- who’s going to buy the homes that are often the only asset these elders have? And how do we find/create affordable housing for them in urban areas where their needs will be better met?

    Glad to see the focus on millennials and micro apts. or tiny houses, but there is a need for similar units adapted to those who are older as well. If we don’t act, I’d forsee a real crisis, with an uptick in car accidents via people who should no longer be driving, poor nutrition and isolation, etc. in elders.

  • Barbara McKibben

    I have been saying this for the last 14 years, that was the year my husband died. Tried to find a 1000/1100 sq ft home but all the builders started at 1600+ sq ft and the condos down town were way out of my price range (200K plus for one bedroom) and the monthly maintenance was also huge what with security guards, etc. I am by no means poor but I do watch my money as I want it to last for the rest of my life. What was wrong with the average size home back when I was a kid in the 40’s and 50’s? I could live in that size again. I enjoy the privacy a home offers and a Small garden area to work.

  • RLW

    My/our situation is unique but it is relevant to the discussion. I am a recently retired teacher, 55 years old. My parents, both now 75, moved in with me in 2002. We have no other family and i am an only child never married. The house was too small for all of us so we bought a home together as a temporary trial-fix. The 2008 housing crash delayed our change to anything. Now, fifteen years later our home is on the market to sell. We plan to relocate across the state to a different city just to adjust to a smaller community near a larger one as our current area we have lived in for 38 years has gone urban and congested which none of us like. It will be hard as anyone I know will no longer be local and my parents, getting older are cranky (perhaps me too) but I love them. They will have me (hopefully) while they are alive but I will most likely be an elder orphan. I am struggling to figure out what kind of home we need in the new area. I have an RV that I pay for storage each month now. It would be great to have a place I could park it on our property without that added expense. My only resolve thus far has been a single-family big enough to allow privacy for both me and them in a community that allows RV parking. Am I right?

    As far as Millenials and home ownership trends, the Millenials I know are not getting jobs that pay as well and, more and more, even in state job pensions are disappearing. I do not agree that the issue is “preferring” smaller spaces but only being able to afford smaller spaces. It is all about affordability. The urban move is more about jobs with higher salaries. In our area teacher salaries have passively been reduced $13,0000 this year, perhaps even more. How? Lower experience base salaries coupled with only base salary figure reported for pension calculation. No advance degree pay or anything else- all paid as bonus not salary. That will radically change even those that earn a pension. We need, as a society, to have more affordable quality housing options. Condos are scary with Nazi associations and maintenance costs, CDD fees, etc that can easily be more than a home and out of the question for those already strapped at your “30% of income” threshold cost burden.