Aging in Place

The problem with aging is that there isn’t a single point at which we are officially “old.” All other major life events—graduating from college and starting a career, for instance, or getting married and starting a family—have a clear starting point. Not aging. It’s not only gradual, but also different for each of us individually. Long before our hips fail us, we might be a little shaky on our feet. Years before we need memory care, we could become unsure of our decisions or forgetful. Aging is relative. Some people are born old. Others are young into their nineties.
Yet despite all of these vagaries, we do know several things for sure: America has an aging population with an increasing life expectancy, most of whom desire to stay in their homes indefinitely as they age. In fact, the aging of the nation’s Baby Boomer population (folks born between 1946-1964) could reshape the United States’ residential real estate market and economy in the coming years. In fact, already 108.7 million strong, the population of Americans age 50 and older is expected to swell by another 10 million—nearly 10 percent—by 2020, according to the AARP. The number of Americans age 85 and older, meanwhile, is expected to more than triple by 2060, making them the fastest-growing age group in the country. Americans aren’t merely aging, however; they’re also living longer, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which says a baby born in 2015 will live to an average of 79.4 while one born in 2060 will live to an average age of 85.63. As members of this baby boomer demographic get older, many will move out of the houses where they raised families and downsize into smaller, cozier apartments, condominiums, and townhouses.
So how do we meet the housing needs of an aging population that plans to stay in their homes, but won’t admit that they are aging. Simple: We must change the discourse related to housing and aging. The dialog must be about adding features that enhance our lives today by offering a return on investment through livability… yet also happen to support the process of aging gracefully. Let’s rebrand “aging in place”—an activity for old people—and start a discussion, instead, about “thriving in place”, a goal for all people.

Baby Boomers Hesitant to Invest in Aging-Related Home Upgrades

With 61 percent of homeowners over the age of 55 planning to stay in their homes indefinitely, it’s surprising that few older homeowners are investing in aging-related improvements. In fact, 65% believe their home’s layout is adequate without any aging-related improvements, and over three-quarters of homeowners (78%) have never completed an aging-related renovation.

Older Homeowners Want to Thrive in Place, Not Age

There is a disconnect between the perception of aging in place—adding grab bars and installing wheelchair ramps—and the reality: that many design features can enhance the livability of a home for all ages. Among homeowners who’ve never considered an aging-in-place renovation, 40% say it’s because they don’t have a physical disability that requires it; 20% say they don’t consider themselves old enough yet for such a project.

Smart Home Technology Increases Safety and Livability

Smart home technology can provide solutions for homeowners looking to increase their safety, accessibility and ease of living. 67% of homeowners over age 55 believe smart-home technology could help them age in place, yet fewer than 1 in 5 (19%) have actually considered installing it for such purposes.

Stats and Facts

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By 2032, Americans over age 50 are expected to account for more than half of U.S. GDP, according to the AARP. Today, the growing over-50 population already is responsible for at least-50 population already is responsible for at least $7.1 trillion in annual economic activity across the United States. If this demographic had its own country, it would have the third largest GDP in the world behind the United States and China and ahead of Japan, which have GDPs of $17.95 trillion, $10.98 trillion, and $4.12 trillion, respectively.

There are several economic reasons for homeowners to start thriving in place projects sooner rather than later. If homeowners start early, they can spend sufficient time researching and planning to avoid wasted time and suboptimal solutions. And, homeowners can protect, and possibly even raise resale value of the home by making the home more appealing to buyers in all age groups with modifications that have a broad appeal.

The Aging in Place Conversation is not Just for Old People

Among homeowners 55 years old or older. 61% are planning to stay in their home indefinitely as they age, citing as their most common reasons that they feel independent in their current home, their current home is:

  • conveniently located
  • they feel safe in their own home
  • they’re familiar with their neighborhood
  • they live close to family

The Best Time to Think About Aging in Place is…Now

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Because nobody wants to age, it’s not surprising that most homeowners wait until they’re in their seventies to proclaim their intentions to “age in place.” Thriving in place by making their home more livable, on the other hand, is something everyone wants to do—regardless of their age. A young mom, for example, can get excited about a kitchen remodel that includes a pot filler over the stove and base drawers instead of lower cabinets, both of which make her kitchen more functional when she’s preparing meals for her family. Likewise, an urban bachelor who’s redoing his bathroom can feel enthused about putting bench seating in his new steam shower so he can take a relaxing steam after a long day on his feet at work. It just so happens that the same features that help these younger homeowners thrive in their homes will help their older selves do the same. It’s all about maximizing comfort, convenience and, as a result, happiness.
Aging in place isn’t about special add-on features that will only help you once you’ve fallen and incurred a disability, it’s about making functional home improvements that make spaces more useful and ore usable for anyone, anytime.

Aging in Place is About Livability

Making homes safe and accessible for seniors is an important and primary objective of aging in place projects. Thriving in place, however, is about much more than just adding grab bars and wheelchair ramps. In fact, many popular aging in the place—wider doorways, open floor plans, zero-step entrances, remote controlled window coverings and motion sensor lights, just to name a few—can enhance the quality of life in a home even as they make the home safer. Such improvements are often “invisible” and can be just as beneficial to a homeowner in his thirties or forties as they are to a homeowner in her seventies or eighties.

Smart Home Technology is More Than Just A Convenience

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Although a majority of homeowners over age 55 (67%) think it could be helpful as they age, just 19% say they have considered installing smart-home technology for that reason. This is likely because homeowners still think of technology as a luxury convenience rather than a practical necessity. In fact, homeowners who haven’t considered smart home technology to assist them with aging in place city as their most common reasons that they don’t need/are not interested in such technology, that it’s too expensive to purchase and that it’s too expensive to install. They reality is the smart home technology supports independence. For example, Internet connected thermostats, appliances, and lighting are a new frontier that hold significant promise for helping Americans age in place comfortably and safely while also adding significantly to their home’s present livability. Consider, a connected refrigerator that automatically detects when groceries run low and orders new ones when needed; the same appliance that creates convenience for a young family can ensure nourishment for a homebound senior.
Older homeowners’ reluctance to adopt smart home technology for aging in place is not surprising. Older adults are less likely than younger adults to be familiar with technology in general, and smart home technology in particular is still coming into existence—and, therefore, Is still expensive. Over time, however, the so-called “digital divide” will close and prices will fall. That, along with a new conversation about thriving instead of aging in place, will lead to increased adoption of smart-home technology for livability instead of luxury.

Cities Have Unique Aging in Place Advantages

Suburban and rural homes may be easier to modify for aging in place purposes, but that doesn’t automatically make them more suitable for older adult. In fact, the AARP Livability Index monitors people at the neighborhood level—to determine how well their community is positioned to meet their current and future needs based on a comprehensive range of metrics, including not only housing, but also transportation, environment, and health, among others. Thanks to their superior public transit and increased social opportunities, urban communities often receive higher “livability” score than rural and suburban ones.
Features that appeal to a wide range of folks are termed “universal design” by accessibility advocates while Industrial designers call it “user-centered design.” Either way, the principle is the same.

User-Centered Design

Improvements that make homes livable only for some risk making them appealing to none. Improvements that make homes universally more livable however, will make them appealing to everyone as we age.

 Surveys Highlight Top Renovation Projects

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Homeowners over age 55 say the bathroom is the top area in the home that they have considered modifying for aging in place; a minority have considered an entrance or stairway, the kitchen, or the bedroom.
Likewise, homeowners say the top aging in place projects they’ve considered are: installing grab bars around the tub or shower, or installing a shower seat, increasing the height of their toilet, installing adjustable/ handheld showerheads, installing base cabinets with rollout trays or Lazy Susans, planting low-maintenance shrubs and plants, and adding handrails on either side of stairways.
Home service professionals, meanwhile, say the top aging in place projects they’ve been hired to do are installing grab bars, adding entryway wheelchair ramps, and increasing the width of doorways.
These findings reinforce the false perception that aging-in-place renovations are reserved only for situations where they are medically necessary and highlight the need to change the conversation from aging in place projects that no one wants to thriving in place projects that everyone can embrace.
The first step toward a natural dialog about thriving in place is education. Nearly half of all homeowners over age 55 say they are not at all interested in learning more about aging in place, they show, and only 7% say they would be interesting in receiving a free aging in place assessment from a home service professional. This indicates a compelling opportunity for home service professionals, who say they are ready and willing to help homeowners thrive in place. In the years ahead, pros’ enthusiasm for professional development in this area will no doubt help them change the aging in place conversation to one that’s focused on thriving in homes instead of surviving in them.

Conclusion

“Aging in place, is a misnomer. Whether we’re 25, 45, 65, or 85, our homes aren’t for aging. They’re for thriving. From pancake breakfasts and Sunday brunches with our friends to holidays with the family, movie nights with our spouses, and curling up with a good book, our homes are where we do the things we love to do, with the people we love to do them with. Looking at aging in place through a new lens that acknowledges how we live—not just how long we live—will usher in a new generation of home-improvement projects that benefit the young, the young at heart, and everyone in between.