Meeting the Housing Needs of an Aging Population

Guest post by Mariella Rutigliano

Many Americans struggle to pay for housing — and the reality today is that a significant number of those who will retire over the next decade will struggle financially to stay in their own homes. According to a 2014 report released by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University called “Housing America’s Older Adults,” the single largest budget item for most people is housing costs. The limited supply of housing in many communities nationwide exacerbates the problem of meeting the growing demand of our aging population and their families.

As America’s population ages, the majority of retirees increasingly prefer to age in place. A study conducted by AARP revealed that 85 percent of older Americans would rather stay in their current home than move elsewhere. The popularity of this option is reflected in the growing trend towards ‘Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (NORCs),’ which are communities formed by the residential patterns of individuals over 60 who live in close proximity. The evolution of NORCs is unplanned, and many successful examples have arisen through the long-term assembly of aging-in-place residents and relocation by other elderly residents who were attracted to the location, features, or environment of the community.

Because NORCs were not specifically designed to meet the needs of seniors living independently in their homes, nonprofits and governments have begun to establish programs to support residents and their needs. These initiatives provide services within specific geographic areas, such as unique transportation options, and assistance with home healthcare, housekeeping, and grounds keeping. A central goal of these programs is to prevent isolation among the elderly by fostering participatory communities through social activities and interactions.

Aging in place in suburban and rural settings poses unique challenges to residents and municipalities. Inadequate access to transportation, for example, is a pervasive issue — those without a personal vehicle face great difficulty in day-to-day activities, such as visiting the doctor, buying groceries, filling prescriptions, and socializing with friends.

Some states, counties, and municipalities have come up with creative approaches to address the challenges that a diffuse landscape poses to elderly residents who choose to age in place. Demographically, the state of Montana, which has the sixth largest aging population in the United States, serves as one example. Since 2006, Montana has allocated federal and state health and transit funds to enhance rural public transportation. These counties are mainly composed of wilderness and remote farms and lack densely populated town centers.  For example, Valley County, Montana, which stretches from the Canadian border south to the Missouri river, is home to 7,000 residents spread out over 5,000 square miles. Over the past 10 years, Montana has successfully expanded access to public transportation from three to almost 40 counties. Also of concern is the dearth of home health aides in states like Montana with vast distances between towns and medical care.  Movement toward technological monitoring has helped ensure that those who live remotely stay connected with family members and caregivers.

As millions of Americans transition into retirement age, there will be a demand for more affordable, safe, and accessible housing and transportation options. Changes in the public policy space should reflect these needs by aiming to improve the quality of life and livability of our communities.

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