Nov 12

Housing for Older Adults

by George Masnick

Earlier this year, the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University released a new report commissioned by AARP titled “Housing America’s Older Adults: Meeting the Needs of an Aging Population.”

The report noted that most older households—and particularly owners—prefer to remain in their own homes as they age.

With age, people are increasingly likely to face disabilities that pose challenges to living independently. The aging of the Baby Boom generation will sharply increase the numbers of older adults with physical and cognitive limitations.

Millions of older adults who develop disabilities live in homes that lack accessibility features such as a no-step entry, single-floor living, extra-wide doorways and halls, accessible electrical controls and switches, and lever-style door and faucet handles. Indeed, the 2011 American Housing Survey reports that just 1 percent of U.S. housing units have all five of these universal design features.

Roughly two in five housing units in the country have either none or only one of these features. Over 60 percent of persons over the age of 80 have some disability affecting their activities of daily living, but just 30 percent of homes they live in have at least three accessibility features.

About 10.3 million households aged 50 and over report having someone at home with serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs. At the same time, 5.5 million of these households also report having to climb stairs to enter or exit their homes. Given the characteristics of the existing housing stock, many older adults will have to make modifications to their homes to accommodate the physical limitations that arise with age if they are to be able to safely
stay in their homes.

Falls are the no. 1 cause of injury and injury-related deaths among adults aged 65 and over. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the real cost of falls to the U.S. health care system in 2010 was $30 billion. In that year,2.3 million older adults were treated for nonfatal fall injuries in emergency departments, with roughly 29 percent resulting in hospitalization. Injuries from falls often reduce mobility and independence, and the decrease in physical activity post-injury raises the likelihood of other falls. This undermines confidence and physical activity, creating a vicious cycle.

But several simple, low-cost measures can go a long way toward preventing these accidents: removing tripping hazards such as slippery area rugs, installing grab bars in bathrooms and railings on both sides of stairs, and improving the lighting around the home and on outdoor walkways. The CDC also recommends a number of health and wellness practices to prevent falls, including having regular eye exams, evaluating medications for side effects, and promoting exercise for balance.

Helping our seniors to safely age in place should be a high priority for all concerned – from national, state and local governments, to the insurance industry, hospitals and extended families, down to the seniors themselves. Many efforts are underway to improve the housing of today’s and tomorrow’s aging population, by adjusting building code regulations, by providing tax incentives for improvements, by providing grants and loans to do the work, and by volunteer assistance.

The Joint Center/AARP report is far-reaching in its analysis of this problem and in its recommendations. It can be found online at housing_americas_older_adults.

George Masnick is a senior research fellow at the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University and a volunteer at Providence St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula.

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