Harvard, AARP Say Seniors Housing is Next Big American Crisis

A shortage of caregivers for baby boomers, high cost of senior living products and services and lack of disability-equipped housing reveal a seniors housing crisis as the 50-and-over population is projected to increase about 20% by 2030, according to a new report released Tuesday by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies and the AARP Foundation.

“We have a big problem,” said Henry Cisneros, executive chairman at CityView and former Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, during a presentation on the study’s findings. “Many aging Americans don’t have personal savings, and governmental budgets are strapped.”

Shortage of Family Caregivers


Two out of three older adults with disabilities who receive long-term care services at home get their care exclusively from family members; yet, a significant share of the youngest baby boomers, aged 50 to 59, do not have children who might take care of them as they age.

Currently, just 9% of older adults with disabilities who receive long-term care services at home rely solely on paid help, and that may be attributed to cost, said Chris Herbert, acting managing director with the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. The median monthly cost for a home health aide is $2,568 — or $30,810 annually, data show.

The ratio of potential family caregivers to those over 80 will decrease from 7- to-1 today to 4-to-1 by 2030, and to less than 3-to-1 by 2050, AARP estimates.

“The family care ratio is going the wrong direction, and is going to put more pressure on other resources of care,” Herbert said.

Senior Living Too Expensive for Average Homeowner, Renter

While a growing number of the population will require the care that assisted living or nursing home facilities provide, the cost of senior living is too much for the average older homeowner and renter, data show.

The typical homeowner aged 65 and over has enough wealth to cover nursing home costs for 42 months and enough non-housing wealth to last 15 months. The median older renter, in contrast, cannot afford even one month in a nursing home without assistance. And, only 18 percent of renters could pay for nursing home care for more than a year.

“While we have these growing options for care, the cost is very high,” Herbert said, noting the hit those 50 to 64 years old took from the recession. “The renter population is one we need to spend a lot of time thinking about.”

In fact, even as the older population has grown in recent years, the number of adults living in senior living communities has shrunk, with the share of the 65-and-over population in nursing homes falling by 20% between 2000 and 2010.

“We need more skilled nursing [facilities],” Cisneros said, noting that the demand for quality memory care facilities will also increase. “But, we need ways to pay for them.”

Lack of Disability-Equipped Homes

The majority of residential housing structures fail to meet the needs of its aging residents, the study finds.

Among households that are headed by someone at least 50 years old and include a person with serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs, only 46% have homes with no-step entryways.

And the cost to retrofit homes to meet aging Americans’ needs add up, Herbert said.

A wheelchair ramp can cost between $1,600 and $3,200. “But when adding a bathroom or bedroom to the first floor, that cost rises substantially,” Herbert said.

Five features to make homes more accessible include no-step entries and single-floor living, which eliminate the need for stairs; switches and outlets reachable at any height; extra-wide hallways and doors to accommodate those in wheelchairs; and lever-style door and faucet handles.

While nearly 90% of existing homes have at least one of those features, only 57% have more than one, the study finds.

When devising solutions to address the looming crisis, industry experts say it’s important to go to the source — ask aging Americans what they need.

“Go to the older people themselves,” said Lindsay Goldman, project director at New York Academy of Medicine. “Ask, ‘What is your day-to-day like?’”

Read the full report here.

Written by Cassandra Dowell

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