A Deeper Dive Into Aging In Place

It’s a phrase in danger of becoming a superficial buzzword from overuse. But “aging in place” is an important concept for Baby Boomers and those who follow us into our Third Chapters. This week, I take a closer look at aging in place — what it means, what to do to accomplish it, and the challenges to it.

Older Than You Might Think

The concept of aging in place has been around for more than 30 years, coined first as health and human service agencies and their clients sought affordable, healthy ways to thrive. The phrase has come into particular focus in the past 10 years, as Baby Boomers reach their Third Chapter and make the conscious decision to stay in the home of their choice for as long as possible. Much has been written about planning for aging in place ahead of time. But even with planning, successful aging in place can be derailed by unexpected societal or personal changes.

Obstacles To Overcome

Three broad areas can affect successful aging in place: having an accessible home and a community that’s accessible and supportive; affordable and reliable access to long-term health and home care; and affordable housing.

Accessibility – Physical and Social Barriers

According to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, by 2035, 17 million older adult households will include at least one person with a disability, up 77 percent from its 2016 study. Yet only some 3.5 percent of U.S. housing units include zero-step entrances, single-floor living, and wide doorways and hallways for persons with a walker or wheelchair. The problem with making such accommodations is cost, and the fact that a significant proportion of older adults will need financial assistance to make accessibility-related changes. In fact, the Harvard study found that not counting the value of their homes, 39 percent of older adults had less than $50,000 in savings.

Community-wide accessibility also can be an issue, both in urban and rural areas of the country. Ramped curbs, wide sidewalks, and accessible businesses all are important keys to successful aging in place. As I’ve mentioned previously, remaining connected to neighbors, friends, family, and one’s community is essential in healthy, vital aging in place. Villages and naturally occurring “retirement communities” — e.g., apartments complexes where a significant number of older adults are residents, for example — can help alleviate isolation, but aren’t the total solution.

Long-Term Care – Helping Hands of Many Kinds

According to the Joint Center, by 2035, there will be approximately 12 million households with at least person requiring sometimes daily health care; and 27 million older adults will need help with other household tasks, including shopping, housework, and paying bills.

The problem, of course, is that long-term care — including home aides — is expensive, and there is a growing shortage of people working as home aides. To offset that, most assistance is provided by family members — a University of Michigan 2022 study found that more than half of adults between age 50 and 80 had helped someone 65 year or older with health, personal, or other care tasks in the two previous years (and that was during a pandemic!). But with the increase of single-person households and households without children, that safety net won’t be available in the future. And the emotional and physical toll on family members quickly approaching their own Third Chapters can be high.

Affordable Housing – The Cost of Comfort and Safety

The Joint Center views affordable housing as one of the most significant obstacles to aging in place. It projects that by 2035, 17.1 million older households will be housing cost-burdened (spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing), and 8.5 million of those households will be spending more than 50 percent of their income on housing. That leaves precious little left for medications, food, and home aides.

What To Do? Advocate!

So how do we reduce these challenges? One of the most important ways is for communities to become more age friendly. And that requires advocacy. Become a voice, publicly and often:

  • For increased salaries and benefits for home health care workers so that they increasingly know that they are recognized, valued, and appreciated.
  • For changes in workplace cultures and policies (e.g., family leave policies, child/parent care benefits, etc.) so that family members who need to take care of aging adults and keep their full-time jobs can do so without the threat of losing employment.
  • For more and better affordable housing options, including smaller dwellings. This also includes petitioning for better local, county, and state laws on such items as Accessory Dwelling Units and similar Tiny House-type solutions.
  • For tax exemptions and other local and federal subsidies to assist older adults with making their chosen home more affordable and age friendly.
  • For collaboration among housing, health, nonprofits, and older adult agencies to foster innovative and new solutions, including better options for cohousing and shared housing arrangements.

As Boomers, we’re used to seeing a need and taking charge to fill it. We must lead the way in advocating for affordable, friendly, safe, and secure options for aging in place as we discover our own Third Chapter Lives.

Third Chapter Living celebrates, challenges, informs and promotes conversations about housing issues affecting the Baby Boomer Generation. Check out our website to learn more about our work. Our Facebook Group is a resource center with tips and recommendations on navigating those issues. Share experiences with others who are looking for Housing Downsizing Tools that allow them to successfully age-in-place.

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