“While I had tried to save for retirement, I never understood the cost of aging.” This statement was made by Susan, a 60-year-old widow in Bellingham, Washington. She has an annual income of $11,000 (Western Washington University, 2017). When looking at the skyrocketing fees required for senior housing and care, what is someone like Susan supposed to do? The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University (2014) explains how these growing expenses are partially due to the large numbers of baby boomers now in retirement. This increase has strained federal funds that go towards Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security (The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, 2014). With rapidly growing needs for an aging population, communities across the country are scrambling to create effective solutions for seniors with varying needs, resources, and interests.
SENIOR HOUSING ASSESMENT
There has been a variety of housing options available to seniors for some time now, but not sufficient enough to meet the magnitude of need. Kang et al (2016) wrote that it is estimated that by 2030 there will be 70 million people above age 65 in the United States, comprising 20% of the total population (Kang et al, 2016). So, what is the first step in addressing the current changes and gaps for this steadily growing group? People must first conduct thorough analyses of individual situations and within neighborhoods and communities. What financial resources do people have? What social connections or family ties do people have? What passions, interests, and worldviews drive these people? What needs and services can the community provide for seniors and what needs and services can seniors give back to the community?
Western Washington University (2017) conducted such an analysis, assessing Susan’s needs, desires, goals, and challenges. Susan wanted stability, affordability, social support, independence, a sense of purpose through giving back to the community, to exercise regularly, to eat healthy, and to stay mentally sharp. Susan lost her husband and struggled with debt and depression. Life and aging change both the physical and emotional needs that people have. People become more fragile with increasing medical requirements, and they may also lose family and friends becoming more fragile emotionally. Times and circumstances change and things planned for long ago may not properly match the current situations people find themselves in, like in Susan’s case. Communities are exploring various solutions to meet such needs (Western Washington University, 2017).
Traywick (2007) postulated that “successful aging takes planning.” However, it is hard to plan for the future with its unknown realities and opportunities. For decades now, most communities have had housing options for seniors such as retirement homes, apartments reserved for seniors only, communities of manufactured homes, group housing, low income housing, assisted living, nursing homes, in-home caregivers, Alzheimer’s residential care facilities, and more. However, even though this list is quite long, there are not enough of these facilities or services that are available and obtainable for the seniors in our country (Traywick, 2007). What is the best way to meet this growing need?
We already talked about Susan’s situation, coming from the low-income side. Let’s take a look at another community on the higher-income side. The Orange County Department on Aging (2018) did a report on the currently available senior housing options in their area, looking at both independent living facilities as well as facilities with medical/health services. To rent an apartment for seniors averaged around $1,000/month. To rent an apartment with care services provided was $2,466/month after paying an entrance fee of $96,600. And, the wait list time in order to get in to one of those apartments could take up to 14 years. Assisted living homes ranged from $2,500-$6,500/month. For the many people out there who cannot afford such expensive care in their later years, what other options are out there?
AN EMERGING SOLUTION: CO-HOUSING
The Merriam-Webster dictionary (2019) defines cohousing as “consisting of a cluster of private homes and a shared community space (as for cooking or semi-communal housing laundry facilities.)” Western Washington University (2017) explained how creating a tiny house in a community setting was their solution for Susan. The space effectively met her needs, providing social interactions and independence at an affordable price. The tiny home suitable for Susan was 20 feet by 20 feet, consisting of a small bedroom, living room, kitchen and bathroom. These homes were made out of inexpensive but durable materials, designed for inexpensive living with solar power and a system set up to catch rainwater. It included a community center with shared spaces for internet, computer, laundry and a kitchen. It also included a large garden open to the public. Susan’s unit had the option to be paid with a grant, loan, or through a 30-year mortgage that was $253/month, well within Susan’s budget (Western Washington University, 2017).
And, Western Washington University (2017) also explained how people like Susan are not the only ones who can benefit from tiny homes. There are various models of slightly varying sizes to accommodate multiple groups. Some are created for immigrant families, intergenerational families, single parent families, and more. Certain models were larger with more amenities, appealing to a slightly higher income bracket. Location was another detail thoroughly considered in the construction of the tiny homes. Their locations were chosen based on proximity to local transport, and community places like libraries, churches, senior centers, and stores. Each model is designed to meet specific needs tailored to clients’ goals, personalities, hobbies, fears, and finances (Western Washington University, 2017).
Green et al (2015) detailed general benefits of smaller homes. They save on construction costs and on utility fees, requiring less heating in the winter and less cooling in the summer. Smaller spaces are easier to manage and keep clean. Smaller homes are more environmentally friendly, using fewer natural resources, reducing emissions into the atmosphere, and being more energy efficient. Lastly, when shared with more than one person, smaller homes promote relationships and healthy community (Green et al, 2015). Smaller homes being affordable and manageable, surrounded by a positive social support system, would facilitate independent living, helping older adults feel capable and happy.
The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University (2014) wrote that it is critical to make housing affordable for seniors, thus also creating a great opportunity for business. Communities across the country are in dire need of new senior housing units to be constructed, both for independent living and for those who need care provided. It also creates business opportunities for in-home care workers, as in-home care is more affordable than residential care. And, business opportunities are created for workers who make adjustments to existing homes to make them safer for the elderly, with things like possible handicap access and/or safety features (The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, 2014).
The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University (2014) goes on to explain that when looking to begin new businesses or construction projects, developers should be sure to consider current demands. People want smaller units that are more manageable and affordable. There is need for intergenerational housing. More units for rent are needed in cities. Tax cuts or incentives might help to encourage people to make adjustments to their homes rather than entering institutions, thus saving money. Increased public transport services are needed, as are improved residential care options. Lastly, it is highly beneficial on all sides to have seniors be involved in their communities helping through various volunteer programs (The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, 2014).
Kang et al (2016) explains that one must look at both individuals and communities holistically to cover all needs. Housing for seniors should consider all areas of wellness, including: social, spiritual, emotional, cognitive, and occupational (Kang et al, 2016). Location, activities, communal spaces, and more can be organized intentionally to promote holistic wellness. While it is good for families and the community to attend to the needs of the elderly, it is also beneficial for the elderly to attend to the needs of others, deriving purpose and positive social relationships through such activities. It will take organization and a committed facilitator to help in finding and following through in the most rewarding and overall beneficial activities to pursue.
Moreover, the need for increased senior housing options of all types is undeniable. It is sublime to extend the amount of time seniors can live independently by downsizing and having community support around them, particularly in ways that are affordable. In-home care organizations could partner with such cohousing facilities, extending independent living even further. When combined with activities that benefit the community as well, like the public garden in Susan’s tiny home compound, the good spreads beyond only caring for seniors to caring for the population as a whole. For many years in the United States the sizes of houses gradually grew. It is now becoming evident that this trend had some negative effects. Simplifying life can sometimes help us to focus on the things that truly matter, like friendship, health, and purpose. For seniors and the rest of us it may be helpful to consider, “Time to downsize?”