Housing an Aging Population: Are We Prepared?

We all know baby boomers are getting older. Here's just one among many figures to capture the trend: By 2050, the population of people aged 65 or older will increase 120 percent, from 40 million to more than 88 million. Put somewhat differently: One in every five Americans will be 65 and older.

Where will they live? That's the critical question the Center for Housing Policy addresses in Housing an Aging Population: Are We Prepared?

The report is a call to alarm. Yet what stood out to me is how many older Americans may well have the opportunity to fulfill a common sentiment: Age in place. The homeownership rate exceeds 80 percent for those ages 65 to 84.

What's more, older Americans largely live in physically decent housing, rental or owner-occupied. For example, only 6 percent of adults are in shelter defined in the American Housing Survey as physically inadequate.

However, aging in place will require a lot of remodeled homes and rentals. A shower tub is common in many homes. It's a pain when you're middle-aged. It's hazardous when you're older. Stairs that are difficult to walk up and down after a long run or chasing after the kids all day can be an insurmountable barrier for an older person after a fall or debilitating illness. The mantra for an aging population is remodel, remodel, remodel.

Another mantra could be neighborhood services, neighborhood services, neighborhood services. For example, for all the attention paid to Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs), it's surprising how few of them exist. These are communities with owned and rented apartments for independent living. The complex also offers assisted living and nursing homes so that an elderly person doesn't have to move when they get sick or injured. The number of CCRCs roughly doubled between 1997 and 2007 to a mere 1,900. The basic drawback to CCRCs is they're expensive.

A more promising approach is to have the services in the neighborhood.

An emerging version of community assistance is the targeted provision of services to older adults living near each other in existing neighborhoods -- sometimes termed Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities, or NORCs. Not yet widespread, efforts to organize and deliver social services in NORCs will likely intensify as the waves of Baby Boomers now entering retirement join the ranks of the oldest adults.

The neighborhood vision fits better with the image of aging in place in an increasingly urban society.

One last observation: The real problem about aging and housing is concentrated with the poorest Americans. For example, almost half of the poorest 65-plus households pay 50 percent or more for their housing.

The housing and income needs of low-income Americans of all ages are pressing. The most worrisome trends with an aging population are concentrated among low-income households. It's where policymakers need to focus much more attention and resources than they are now. Society's safety nets are critical for all aging Americans. They are a lifeline for the low-income elderly of today and tomorrow.

About the author

Chris Farrell is the economics editor of Marketplace Money.

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