New Harvard report says U.S. unprepared to help seniors age in place

Liz Seegert

About Liz Seegert

Liz Seegert (@lseegert), is AHCJ’s topic editor on aging. Her work has appeared in NextAvenue.com, Journal of Active Aging, Cancer Today, Kaiser Health News, the Connecticut Health I-Team and other outlets. She is a senior fellow at the Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement at George Washington University and co-produces the HealthCetera podcast.

A newly-released report from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University says the U.S. is woefully unprepared to meet the escalating need for affordable, accessible housing that offers social connectivity and support services for America’s seniors. Many older adults already must decide between paying for food, medication or rent, and as the population ages this crisis is getting worse.

The new report, Housing America’s Older Adults, says that existing housing often lacks basic features needed by seniors, such as wheelchair accessibility. This lack of necessary features forces many frail and disabled older adults from their own homes. Additionally, isolation among adults who can no longer drive is an increasing problem, due to lack of public transportation and inadequate pedestrian infrastructure. These “disconnects between housing programs and the health care system put many older adults with disabilities or long term care needs at risk for premature institutionalization,” the report says.

The report calls for a combined effort of public, private, non-profit organizations to assess and address housing options that support aging in community. It also calls on individuals and families to be more proactive in determining current and future housing requirements. Many adults who are about to turn 65 are not doing enough to prepare themselves or their environments for aging in place, according to this article in the Washington Business Journal. AARP’s Public Policy Institute documented the decline in living standards many people face as they reach retirement age and struggle with changes in income and rising health care costs due to multiple chronic conditions.

Nearly 70 percent of people who reach the age of 65 will ultimately need some type of long-term care. The Population Reference Bureau estimates that the oldest old, those 85+, will increase from 5.8 million in 2010 to 8.7 million by 2030, placing additional strain on health care, housing, and long term services and supports. Although most people want to age in place, the reality is, they may not be able to, the report concludes. Interventions by the public and private sectors, as well as federal, state and local municipalities to take steps to ensure that housing and health care systems support appropriate and cost effective options is “critical.”

There are numerous story ideas for reporters that can be teased out of the Harvard report. For example:

  • Look at various housing models in your community, such as village-to village, naturally occurring retirement communities, and co-housing. Check aging resource section for more aging-in-place ideas.
  • What are 60-something homeowners doing, if anything, to prepare for their “golden years?” Are renovations planned or taking place? You can check with the local building departments or contractors in your area.
  • Are seniors staying in their communities, if not their own homes? Are affordable options available within the assisted living or continuing care retirement industry? Is the housing stock in your area growing? What is being offered, and what is needed?
  • Ask local policymakers what they’re doing to encourage more community-based housing options and support services. What legislation, if any, is pending?
  • Contact your local Area Agency on Aging. They can help pinpoint unique efforts or pilot programs that are helping seniors to age-in-place. Ask whether there are initiatives that are using different types of partnerships, technology or funding to deliver meals, home or community health services, encourage social connections, transportation, or other key supports.
  • Read Megan Sandal’s recent blog post on housing and health. While she focuses on children, many of her tips are also applicable to older adults. Reach out to geriatricians and geriatric nurse practitioners to ask about the conversations they’re having with patients and families about housing and keeping seniors safe and well.

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