Aging in place: Implications for housing and community development

Posted on February 7, 2017 by Brad Neumann, Michigan State University Extension

“In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes,” wrote Benjamin Franklin in a letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy in 1789. With individuals in our society facing only two certainties in life, it comes as somewhat of a surprise that our communities are largely underprepared for an ever-growing, aging population. For many older adults, high quality of life is directly tied to the ability to continue living independently, and independence is largely based on home design and function and the connection of that living situation to daily services. This is the conclusion of a new report by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University – Projections and Implications for Housing a Growing Population: Older Households 2015-2035.

Today, one in seven Americans are 65 or older. By 2035, less than 20 years away, there will be one in five Americans 65 or older. Looking at the data based on households, today, one in five U.S. households are headed by someone 65 or older. By 2035, that number will be one in three. With many baby boomers (born 1946-1964) intending to “age in place”, or stay in their own homes or communities, there are clear implications for housing design and construction and community planning and policy making.

The expanding older population will increase the demand for housing that is accessible and well-connected to services throughout the community. Accessibility is largely an issue of the arrangement of rooms and accommodations inside the home, but not exclusively. Local governments can amend zoning codes to allow ramps to be built in the front or side yard setbacks of residences without requiring variances or other lengthy or costly approval processes. This approach streamlines things and helps to accommodate older individuals who would prefer to age in place.

Regarding the growing demand for housing that is connected to services that older adults demand, walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods can be part of the solution. An increasing number of older adults is likely to come with a growing number of Americans who cannot drive or choose not to. Some will rely on walking to access basic goods and services. A connected network of sidewalks and a mixture of uses in the neighborhood will help to accommodate individuals’ needs. For others, the reliance will be on transit service, which will likely need to expand with new and more frequent routes throughout a community to connect older adults with the services they need.

Another contributing solution to the housing situation is for local governments to allow for accessory dwelling units (see Accessory dwelling units – Coming to a neighborhood near you?), which would allow for an older adult to live in close proximity to a caregiver, family or friend while enjoying his/her own private living space and some degree of independence.

Michigan State University Extension provides education for local government policy makers and caregivers in Michigan. Visit our Livable Communities, Aging, and Caregiving webpages for more information.