In 2011, the first members of the 78-million strong Baby Boom generation turned age 65. By 2040, the number of Americans aged 65 and older is expected to more than double. The aging of the population will require us to make major changes to the way we operate as nation, including adopting new approaches to meeting the housing needs of our nation’s seniors.
I am privileged to serve as one of the co-chairs of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Housing Commission. After a 16-month review, the commission recently released a report offering recommendations on a broad range of important issues — homeownership, affordable rental housing, housing finance reform, and the housing needs of rural Americans. A major focus of the commission’s work was examining the housing challenges facing America’s burgeoning senior population, including the strong desire of seniors to “age in place” and live independently in their own homes and communities.
For many seniors, aging in place reflects an aspiration to remain supported by the same personal connections that have given meaning to their lives. It can also be the most financially sensible housing option for those seniors with the physical ability to remain at home.
Unfortunately, many of today’s homes and neighborhoods were designed at an earlier time before the unique needs of an aging population were even recognized. For many seniors, their homes — rental or owned — lack the necessary structural features and support systems. Likewise, many of our nation’s communities fail to provide the services and amenities that would make aging in place a realistic choice.
I speak from experience. My 86-year old mother, Elvira Cisneros, has lived in the same home and San Antonio neighborhood since 1945. Over the years, we have made a number of modifications to the house to allow her to live independently there. These investments have been worth every penny: Living at home deep into her senior years has enabled my mother to remain linked to family, friends, and community. It has enriched her life.
But not everyone has this option. As a nation, we need to think more creatively and strategically about how our homes can accommodate the desire to age in place and become cost-effective platforms to improve health and longevity for an aging population.
As a step to achieving this goal, the commission recommends better coordination of federal programs that deliver housing and healthcare services to seniors. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services should jointly identify and remove barriers to the creative use of residential platforms for meeting the health and long-term care needs of seniors. In evaluating the costs of housing programs that serve frail seniors, Congress and the OMB should take into account savings to the healthcare system made possible by the use of housing platforms with supportive services.
A number of states, private institutions and nonprofits have begun pioneering work in this area — using residential solutions to improve health outcomes for seniors, while reducing the per capita cost of healthcare. The federal government must catch up and support these efforts.
The commission also supports better integration of aging-in-place priorities into existing federal programs, and recommends that the Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance program be expanded to include home assessments and modifications for aging in place.
For some seniors, reverse mortgages can be an important tool to finance home modifications that will allow greater independence. The Federal Housing Administration and others should work to ensure that consumers receive effective guidance regarding the mechanics of these financial products.
And the commission suggests the convening of a White House conference of leading experts, housing practitioners, and public officials to catalyze the development of a coordinated national approach to aging in place.
What is perhaps most important is a greater public focus on the housing needs of our nation’s seniors whose numbers grow each year. The commission hopes its recommendations will shed some light on this critical issue and help policymakers fashion effective solutions.
Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros co-chairs the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Housing Commission.