Editor’s note: This article is part of a year-long project about aging well, planning for the changes aging brings and shaping how society thinks about aging.
Do you want to age independently in your own home and neighborhood? “Aging in place,” as it’s commonly referred to, is most people’s preference, but most housing and communities in America are not suited to the needs of older residents. And with our nation’s fastest population growth occurring among people over 65, finding solutions is important not only for individual families, but for our whole society.
By 2030, 1 in 5 Americans will be over the age of 65, and we need policies and design strategies now to ensure safe, accessible and affordable housing for seniors. This is the subject of Independent for Life: Homes and Neighborhoods for an Aging America (University of Texas Press, 2012), a book I co-edited with the staff of Stanford University’s Center on Longevity.
Independent for Life covers a wide range of smart solutions, including remodeling current housing and building new homes for accessibility and safety; retrofitting existing neighborhoods to connect needed services and amenities; and planning new communities that work well for people of all ages. It is a culmination of more than 30 years studying homes and neighborhoods that began when I was mayor of San Antonio. That is when I first noticed the characteristics of neighborhoods in which most residents were facing the challenges of age, and that the housing stock was older.
(MORE: What it Takes to Age in Place)
It struck me then that such neighborhoods required specific attention, but it was not until years later that I discovered how significant the challenge of an aging population is for the nation.
This realization led to my current work on a project co-sponsored by the Center for Longevity, which focuses on the housing and community issues faced by the nearly 90 percent of Americans who will stay home as they age. The central assertion of this project is that we as a nation need to examine the ways that we can modify or build homes and communities to support aging in place for an unprecedented number of older Americans.
New Homes Are Needed for New Communities
Much of our present housing stock is a poor fit for a nation where so many people are aging. Today, 70 percent of Americans older than 65 live in single-family detached homes, many of which need modifications. For years, city officials and remodeling contractors have organized and certified renovation packages to weatherize homes. The need to make existing houses more suitable for older persons should prompt a similar approach to create “life span homes.”
New homes that are appropriate for older persons are also in demand. Reports by the National Association of Home Builders indicate that more than 30 percent of home buyers 55 and older would seriously consider buying town homes, duplexes, or multifamily condo units. As a society we need to produce more such housing that is of smaller scale, affordably priced, and located in walkable communities.
(MORE: Own Your Future)
Beyond the suitability of individual homes, it is necessary to adapt entire existing communities for older residents. City planners refer to the growing concentration of older people in existing communities as Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities, or NORCs. They have shown how such seemingly unchangeable barriers as the age of the housing stock, and distance from necessary stores and services, can be overcome by an intentionally designed overlay of community services. (Learn more about NORCs here.)
Creative Planners Must Find New Solutions for Aging in Place
Admittedly, it is difficult to place new communities of major scale composed of homes for older persons in built-up urban environments, but the recycling of obsolete areas is happening in cities of all sizes. And there is immense potential for newly designed retirement communities in the less dense first-ring suburbs and in the green-grass ex-urbs.
One of the most important breakthroughs in the community-building field in recent years has been the work of the architects and planners known as the New Urbanists, who support walkable, mixed-use communities that reduce the focus on cars. Their efforts have advanced Smart Growth principles that are highly applicable to the creation of communities for older Americans. Here are some of my take-aways from this school of thought:
- Essential support systems for aging Americans must be planned regionally (like mass transit, which is key for seniors).
- At the neighborhood level, we must consider the size and organization of urban neighborhoods, which have direct implications for seniors living at home. They need to be able to walk to essential services, so a neighborhood must include a mix of homes, retail stores, eating and recreation sites, and public gathering places.
- At the level of the individual building unit or home, the movement stresses designing and locating dwelling units so that the community has a mix of types and price points, which grants older persons the freedom to choose from a variety of housing options.
- One innovation for aging residents who wish to continue working in a small, self-employed setting is the live/work flex house, a dwelling that includes a workspace. Such mixed uses create places where older persons can comfortably pursue careers.
- One of the dominant forms of urban development going forward is going to be residential over retail. It will be economically successful, it will enhance communities, and it will promote walkability and other desirable principles that residents are seeking.
As our country recognizes the growth of its senior population, it is important that we plan and build our homes and communities accordingly. The federal government’s housing-finance agencies should establish priorities related to age-appropriate housing. In so doing, they would stimulate interest on the part of the lending sector and make it possible for builders to provide that housing.
This is not a matter of creating homes for our seniors as acts of obligation. We will be in this group some day too, so it’s in all of our best interests.