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.

You’re Getting Older, Where Will You Live?

So often, the spotlight on micro-apartment residents shines brightest on the young. Recent college grads, twenty-something Bay Area startup employees and other unencumbered types are the people we imagine will live in 300 sq ft, Murphy-bed-equipped micro-apartments. But this assumption might be out of step with demographic realities. Empty-nested-baby boomers are retiring en masse and micro-apartments might be a perfect fit for their housing needs.

To illustrate what the US housing market will have to contend with demographically, here are a few stats from a US and World Report article:

  • The age-65-and-older population grew 18 percent between 2000 and 2011 to 41.4 million senior citizens.
  • The median income for people age 65 and older was $27,707 for males and $15,362 for females in 2011.
  • 81 percent of seniors reside in metropolitan areas.
  • The average life expectancy for people turning age 65 is an additional 20.4 years for women and 17.8 years for men.
  • The US Census Bureau projects that by 2040, there will be twice as many Seniors as there are today, with 28 million of them aged at least 80 years old.

In other words, there are more seniors, living longer, with less money, primarily living in and around urban areas. The trend toward building bigger houses, with their huge lawns to mow, interiors to clean and mortgages to pay seems profoundly incompatible with our growing senior ranks.

Not only do larger homes make less sense in terms of convenience and economics, their isolating effects may even have a deleterious impact on senior health. According to the Yale Medical Group, social seniors showed reduced risks of cardiovascular problems, some cancers, osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis and Alzheimers. Conversely, antisocial seniors had higher blood pressure and greater risk of death (we thought the risk was the same for everyone).

Retirement communities provide one answer for housing seniors. There has been an increase in “age-restricted” (typically with a minimum age of 50) multifamily housing units recently: In 2012, 225K units were started versus 92K started four years ago. But with 18.5% of the over-65 population still working in 2012, and with many seniors enjoying robust health for many years past 60, the designation of retirement versus non-retirement is getting fuzzier by the day.

Another solution is the “Naturally Occurring Retirement Community” (NORC), which provide a transitional housing model. According to Wikipedia, a NORC is a:

Community that was not originally designed for seniors, but that has a large proportion of residents who are older adults (at least 60 years old). These communities are not created to meet the needs of seniors living independently in their homes, but rather evolve naturally, as adult residents age in place.

NORCs are cropping up all over the US. In NYC, the birthplace of the NORC, there are 27, all of which are Robert Moses-era “towers-in-the park” style apartment high-rises. Other NORCs take form in suburban developments and even rural areas.

What’s great about the NORC is that they use existing buildings and tenants. And unlike retirement homes, young and old live alongside one another. What’s less great is that they’re not purpose built. Some NORCs, because they were built around a full family, are not necessarily the best arrangements for the needs of seniors–people for whom smaller, more manageable spaces are a big plus.

In Seattle, where the micro-apartment controversy continues to brew, there have been reports that seniors are opting for the tiny digs because of their convenience and small price tags. Piggybacking on this trend, we would contend that micro-apartments and other varieties of compact living are perfectly suited for senior populations: They’re easier to manage, generally cost less to rent, buy and operate, they lend themselves to social living, they are typically urban and have applicability to non-senior demographics.

What do you think about this topic? Are you a senior who has discovered a great housing solution? Or are you faced with the scarcity of smart housing? Let us know your thoughts in our comments section.

Senior Woman Image via

  • Peter Christensen

    Age restricted communities are a compromise to allow development that doesn’t allow school-age children. School kids are money-losers because of low property tax rates on residential housing. It’s fine (wrt municipal financing) for a big family to live in a big, expensive house, but a disaster if they live in a small house or inexpensive apartment. Age restrictions take away that disincentive to allow small dwellings.

    • lifeedited

      thanks for the explanation. that’s useful information in the context of this article.

  • Every seniors residence built in the last 20 years has been a micro-apartment, and most of them have full universal design, great efficiency is a small space, common facilities to share. The co-housing and micro apartment has more to learn from seniors than vice-versa.

  • Sandy Waller

    Even seniors with sufficient assets want to live in smaller, more manageable spaces that are closer to wine bars, restaurants, museums, shopping, doctors. Trust me as an upcoming senior and interior designer, I know. I also know that well-designed spaces can be incredibly spacious, beautiful and functional. I am surprised that you didn’t recognize the similarities in housing needs between the young and the old sooner.

  • maggi g

    when I retired I sold my house and moved into a senior apartment building. not assisted living, just a community of people over 62. my house was large and downsizing was hard. my apartment is 484 sq ft and it is heaven. the bedroom is small but the living area and kitchen are perfect for one person with lots of storage in the kitchen. the building is over 25 years old and has been completely renovated inside and out. each apartment is completely new. I had planned on moving to this building many years ago because I knew I could not continue taking care of a house and yard as I aged. its also only 2 miles from my house and in my neighborhood where I have always lived. the same bus I have always used picks me up right at the front of the property and I can still shop at all my favorite stores. its a great convenience for me not to have to make any drastic changes in my lifestyle with my retirement. I thought moving into a small space would be so much harder than it turned out to be.

  • Ani

    I’m not a senior, but am a single adult empty-nester who is in the process of selling the family home and downsizing. I am sick of mowing huge lawns and have no need for all of the space I have here. I have been looking for a small well-designed condo in a more urbanized area of my state. They are quite elusive. Most towns here have no such thing; you have to own or rent an entire house. The condos/townhouses I am finding all tend to be over 1000 sf.; many well over. Many other singles I know have had to buy a 3-bedroom house as they couldn’t find a nice smaller condo. Where I’m looking, the well-priced condos in good condition sell immediately and are in short supply.
    It seems to me that we are also a neglected segment of the population; we are middle-aged, will be working for many years to come, are active and want a small easy to care for place to live. We have no need for lots of bedrooms and a space for the swing set, but are a long ways from “senior housing”.
    I’d say that smaller well-designed and located condos would fill the needs of people at many stages of life, from young singles and couples, downsizing empty-nesters and seniors as well. I would bet that there is going to be a surplus of large suburban homes on the market in years to come, with urban condos in short-supply. I’m not sure why builders keep building what we already have too much of.

  • Elise Rothman d’Hauthuille

    Great article – an eye opener. I do think urban gardening could have been added to the article. Backyard, rooftop and window gardens should be an integral component to every senior living community. Home grown food is healthier and it saves money, gardening keeps seniors connected to nature, and it give folks a real purpose and control over their lives. Gardening can be done by people who are less abled (mentally or physically), even confined to a wheelchair…

  • Ray Russell

    As I approach retirement age I spend a fair amount of time thinking about how and where I’ll live. I think this is a great option, but not the only option. My plan is to move into a small RV and spend summers in the mountains and winters in the desert.

    • GingeBot

      The only problem I had when living in an rv was the smell from the on board toilet and associated ‘black’ tank. Maybe it was the design of my model (cougar bhs) or I wasn’t emptying it correctly (although I got help from local rv specialists), but I never felt I was really free of some faint odor. Other than that I loved it. Did it for 3 years…

    • HairyGuy

      livin’ the van life with chad on youtube and bugoutvehicles mr. gary. 😀

  • ZooBear

    Most of the micro-apartments and tiny house designs I see are not senior-friendly. After seeing our two elderly parents experience increasing difficulty with everyday tasks in common spaces, I can tell you that most of these places need an overhaul before they’d be livable for seniors. Things like lofts, ladders, micro toilets, out-of-reach storage spaces, tiny hallways, etc are a no-go.

    That said, I’d certainly consider a small apartment for my own old age provided it was properly designed and outfitted.

  • GingeBot

    I am in the process of figuring out what my life will be, now that I am retired. And smaller is very attractive to me. I need to reduce costs but I also just want to simplify. I would like to see something like a Murphy bed for guests, and I would like to have a place that allows a pet. We seniors love pets. Beyond that, the minimal ‘kitchen’ is fine…I don’t cook much anymore. And if I wanted to, I could use the communal one. Walk-in shower is perfect. Really, a small place is ideal. Okay…perfect world it has a small patio or deck for seating outside and a planter box or two. And good storage. But I really can’t see why I would need much beyond 300-400 sq feet. I have been looking at park model home communities in the southwest. The biggest problem is that they are usually on the outskirts of town. These are appealing because they are right in the heart of things! Now if they would make them for sale at good prices…