The aging of American society is not a transitory phenomenon caused by baby boomers, said Jack Rowe, professor of health policy management at Columbia University, in a recent conference called “Designing Homes and Neighborhoods for an Aging Population” at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. “It’s a permanent structural change induced by greater longevity.” Core U.S. institutions, including housing, “are not engineered for the society we’re going to have,” he said.

By 2030, nearly 20 percent of U.S. residents will be 65 and older, and every state will see its older population increase as a percentage of its total population. By 2050, the number of people 65 and older will grow by 125 percent, to 88.5 million. The number of those 85 and older will triple, from 5.8 million to 19 million. Already, one-fourth of households include a resident 65 or older. Nearly half of women over age 60 live alone. One in three baby boomers is single and lives alone. More will be alone as they age.

Close to 90 percent of Americans would like to stay in their homes as they age, said Nancy LeaMond, executive vice president of the AARP’s state and national group. Yet today’s houses are “built to last but not to adapt,” she said. “We can’t fit an older population into our current housing.” The current housing stock will need to be retrofitted.

Henry Cisneros, former secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and executive chairman of CityView, said the transformation has already begun. “Aging in place is a reality for most Americans.”

Cisneros discussed several housing strategies to deal with these changes:

  • Retrofitting existing homes. Seventy percent of people 65 and older live in detached, single-family homes, and many intend to stay. A certified, affordable renovation package, said Cisneros, could create a “lifelong home.” Potential items include the following: roll-under kitchen and bathroom sinks, grab bars, curbless showers, lever faucets and door handles, no-step entrances, and wider doors and hallways to accommodate wheelchairs. Such changes could be paid for with community development block grants and other federal money. Retrofitting homes could be a job creation strategy.
  • Developing new housing that is appropriate in scale and accessorized for advancing age. Thirty percent of Americans age 55 and older indicated that they would consider moving to a smaller townhouse, duplex, or condominium, according to a 2002 report by the National Association of Realtors, but only 15 percent now live in such housing.

“We need to be producing more housing that is smaller-scale, affordably priced, suitable for multifamily use, located in walkable communities, and close to amenities, commercial districts, health facilities, and public transit,” Cisneros wrote in Independent for Life: Homes and Neighborhoods for an Aging America, a book released at the conference.

One option is cohousing, which offers individual dwellings that share common space for community activities. Such arrangements are often multigenerational. The neighborhood design allows older residents to continue to function independently while being part of a community.

  • Naturally occurring retirement communities (NORCs). Neighborhoods where many residents are older would offer services such as certified home renovation, senior nutrition and fitness programs, community policing tailored to special needs, or help with everyday activities like bathing.
  • New communities. It will be important to have a wider range of choices of walkable, transit-oriented communities for older people who have had to give up their driver’s license. These communities can be in infill, first-ring suburbs or in exurbs. In many places, suburban institutions have been recycled—for instance, abandoned shopping malls or big-box stores have been transformed into walkable communities.

In some cases, said Cisneros, communities may need to modify their zoning codes to offer expanded housing choices.

Good transit options and walkable communities are essential to helping seniors maintain their autonomy, and HUD offers sustainable-communities grants to help communities plan for both. One feature that makes a community walkable: “You shouldn’t have to be a former Olympic sprinter of any age to get across the street before the light changes,” said LeaMond.

Older communities can be retrofitted for walking, as Chattanooga, Tennessee, is doing. “It’s the biggest change in Chattanooga in 25 years,” said Mayor Ronald Littlefield. “We’ve built miles of greenway and trails. Some are wheelchair-accessible.”

In housing, universal design makes the built environment more accessible not just for the elderly, but also for the disabled and, as the name implies, for the general population. “A lot of housing assumes it’s for June Cleaver,” said Ilene Rosenthal, deputy secretary for the Maryland Department of Aging. “You’re never going to get old, you’re never going to have a stroke.”

In communities, universal design includes features such as better lighting; larger, better illuminated street signs; and wheelchair accessibility. In homes, such design can include small adaptations like lever door handles and large clock face displays, and larger ones such as more open floor plans and minimum-width hallways that allow for adequate turning radius. It’s expensive to retrofit homes with adaptive features, so it’s better to build for them in the first place, said Fernando Torres-Gil, director of the UCLA Center for Policy Research on Aging.

One often-overlooked issue is the housing needs of moderate-income seniors. “The statistics look grim: big increases in low- and moderate-income seniors and the very old,” said Robyn Stone, executive director of the LeadingAge Center for Applied Research. Baby boomers might well have less money as they age than their parents did. In response, Stone said, “we need to think of housing as a base for bringing services into the community.”

There will be many people who shouldn’t stay in their own home at 90. They may not be ready for a nursing home or be able to afford assisted care in their home. There should be more options for affordable housing and services for people in such situations, said Stone.

In the end, “if we can rebuild America so people can maintain their ability to function and their autonomy, we will all profit from an aging society,” said Laura Carstensen, founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. “It will be a story not about old age, but a story about long life.”