It’s time to focus on the public policies that will move America forward. One area that holds great bipartisan promise is more tightly connecting healthcare with the home to support America’s rapidly aging population. In fact, bridging the health-housing divide is more urgent than ever.
As highlighted in a recent report by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Senior Health and Housing Task Force, the United States stands unprepared for the demographic transformation now under way. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of Americans aged 65 and above will exceed 74 million by 2030. In less than 15 years, more than one in five Americans will be a senior.
Florida is riding the crest of the aging wave. At 17.3 percent, Florida has the highest percentage of residents 65 and older than any other state and ranks second only to California as the one with the largest senior population. By 2030, the number of Florida seniors is projected to rise to 7.77 million, more than doubling the number in 2010 and accounting for about 27 percent of the Sunshine State’s total population.
It’s no secret that South Florida, in particular, suffers from an acute shortage of affordable homes, a fact that contributes to high housing costs. One recent survey found that Miami ranks fourth nationally on a list of the most cost-burdened communities, with more than 19 percent of residents spending at least half their monthly incomes on rent or mortgage payments. According to another study, more than 35 percent of renters in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach metro region were “severely” burdened by housing costs.
The percentage of Florida seniors who own their own homes is high, well over 80 percent. But as people age, incomes decline significantly, adversely affecting thousands of older adults who still hold mortgages and must pay property taxes.
Unless we increase the supply of rental homes affordable to Florida’s lowest income seniors, the current shortage of these homes will also grow. An expansion of the senior population inevitably will translate into more rental demand, while many senior homeowners, eager to forego the responsibility of property upkeep and home maintenance, will seek out smaller rental homes.
Many Floridians will also aspire to “age in place” in their own homes and communities. Yet many homes lack key structural features like extra-wide hallways and doors and accessible electrical switches and outlets that can enable a senior to live there safely and independently. As a national retirement destination, Florida is fortunate to have many communities with accessible transportation systems, well-lit streets and housing that is close to retail stores and services. These community-design elements are essential to helping seniors age in place and will take on even greater importance as the older adult population expands.
In addition, the large number of seniors who will eventually need assistance with tasks like bathing, food preparation, dressing and medication management — what is commonly referred to as long-term services and supports, or LTSS — is compounding these concerns. LTSS can be very expensive, but Medicare does not provide coverage. Family caregivers provide the overwhelming share of LTSS for loved ones, sometimes at great emotional and financial cost.
To respond effectively to these challenges, we must more tightly link our nation’s housing and healthcare systems. With most seniors suffering from at least one chronic disease, bringing greater supportive services to the home can help manage these conditions and improve overall senior health. These services can be the critical difference that allows an older adult to remain at home and age in place. A growing body of evidence is also showing that a greater integration of housing with healthcare can reduce overall medical costs.
Another critical opportunity is preventing falls by seniors, many of which occur in the home. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one out of four older adults falls each year and 2.8 million seniors are treated in emergency rooms for fall injuries annually. In 2015, falls accounted for more than $31 billion in Medicare costs. For these reasons, our health care system must do a better job promoting falls-prevention programs as a critical way to lowering costs and improving senior health.
On Thursday, Nov. 10, from 9 a.m.-12 p.m., I will join local and national experts to discuss these important issues at a public forum at the University of Miami’s Robert and Judi Prokop Newman Alumni Center, 6200 San Amaro Dr. Visit http://bipartisanpolicy.org/ for more information. With Florida at the forefront of America’s aging transformation, better connecting housing and healthcare must be a top policy priority for the state.
Mel Martinez is the former U.S. senator from Florida and former secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. He is a co-chair of Bipartisan Policy Center’s Senior Health and Housing Task Force.