The Challenges of Aging-In-Place

by Caroline Blakely, President and CEO of Rebuilding Together
May 24, 2016 12:00 PM ET

The Challenges of Aging-In-Place

In The New York Times piece "Aging in Place" columnist Jane E. Brody discusses the very real considerations that homeowners must take into account as they age. She brings up many valid points regarding the barriers to aging-in-place for older homeowners, and provides some great recourse and ideas for facing those challenges. However, as we continue the conversation around the housing crisis facing our aging population, it is vital that we also consider the aging-in-place needs of individuals with limited income.

According to the National Council on Aging, more than 25 million Americans aged 60 and older are considered economically insecure – living at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level. For older homeowners, and estimated 3.5 million are underwater on home loans and have no home equity. For these individuals, retirement communities are prohibitively expensive, and moving in with family members may not always be a valid recourse for a variety of reasons ranging from lacking financial resources to limited space in their relatives' homes. Oftentimes, aging-in-place is the only recourse for these homeowners, and the equity built into their home remains their greatest, and perhaps only, source of wealth.

America is undoubtedly facing a housing crisis, especially when it comes to older adults. Over the course of the next two decades, the number of adults aged 70 or older will increase by 91 percent, according to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. This exponential spike will create a demand for housing that is both affordable, and equipped to accommodate aging-in-place residents. Housing that checks both those boxes is scant.  

America’s aging housing stock is not equipped to handle the needs of its rapidly aging population. Simply put, most homes were not designed with older adults in mind. Steep staircases, too-narrow doorways and other basic housing features pose serious safety risks to older homeowners.

Aging in modern America is also a costly process, particularly as many Americans lack sufficient retirement savings to cover the cost of healthcare and other necessary expenses. Overburdened by these costs, millions of aging homeowners simply cannot afford to hire someone to make their homes more accessible through aging-in-place modifications. According to the National Association of Homebuilders, 80 percent of aging-related home modifications are paid for out-of-pocket, posing “a significant obstacle to aging-in-place for the poorest elderly, who have both the highest levels of disability and tend to live in older housing stock.”

This is why the work of organizations like Rebuilding Together is so urgently-needed. Rebuilding Together is a leading, national nonprofit working with low-income homeowners to improve the safety and health of their homes. Each year, Rebuilding Together’s local affiliates and nearly 100,000 volunteers complete about 10,000 rebuild projects nationwide.

Rebuilding Together’s services help preserve affordable homeownership and stabilize neighborhoods, empowering homeowners and their families to remain in their homes and communities.

Older adults make up the majority of homeowners served by Rebuilding Together. In 2015 alone, we worked with volunteers, partners and local community organizations across the country to provide safe and healthy home repairs and modifications for more than 5,400 homes with occupants aged 62 or older. These homeowners have lived in their homes on average more than 20 years, and want to stay put.  

By installing handrails, grab bars, easy-to-operate handles and switches, nonslip flooring and improved lighting, we increase home accessibility and allow low-income older homeowners to be safer and more independent. This not only empowers them to remain in their homes, it is also cost-effective in the long term. According to the Center for Hosing Policy, studies on Medicaid expenditures have found that providing care and supportive services in peoples’ home, as opposed to a nursing home or retirement facility, resulted in savings of $22,588-$49,078 annually per individual.

As we continue the conversation around the housing crisis facing our aging population, it is critically important that we consider the aging-in-place needs of individuals with limited income, and ensure they are included in every solution that is discussed.