How the Housing Crisis Affects Older Adults

Americans are not only living longer, but the number of people aged 65 and older is also growing. It’s a trend that will continue over the next decade. Longevity among seniors raises major questions, including how aging people will be able to continue to afford housing and receive support in their later years.

Posted on December 28, 2023

A recent study published by the Joint Center for Housing Services (JCHS) at Harvard University suggests that America is not ready to address the problem.

By the Numbers

Today’s senior population in the U.S. totals about 58 million – and makes up more than 17 percent of the nation’s population. At the same time, older people are opting to live at home as they age. Estimates show that households headed by seniors aged 80 and older will more than double by 2040.

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      Major Housing Challenges for Aging Adults

      Seniors tend to struggle with three key housing issues, according to the researchers: affordability, physical accessibility, and access to medical and other necessary services inside and outside of the home.

      Affordability
      The number of seniors carrying debt into retirement has been rising over recent decades. Retirement income often stagnates and becomes fixed, so responding to economic changes, including inflation, can become nearly impossible for most older people.

      Many senior households find themselves cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their monthly income on housing. In 2021, 11.2 million older adults were facing severe cost-burdens, spending more than 50 percent of their income on housing costs. Housing cost burdens make it hard to afford food, medicine, and other basic needs.

      Older adults’ income tends to decrease with age, too, for several reasons. Elders may have less money coming in after retirement or lose household income when their spouse passes away. The JCHS states that median household income for seniors 80 and older was about $37,000 in 2022. In contrast, those aged 50 to 64 had median household incomes of nearly $80,000.

      There are also significant differences in home equity among racial lines for older homeowners. Those with greater home equity can use it to pay for medical services that help them age in place. For example, older Asian and multiracial homeowners have a median of $270,000 in home equity, and White homeowners typically have a median of $251,000 in home equity. Other groups do not have much of a financial cushion to pay for the same services; Hispanic and Black homeowners carry $200,000 and $123,000 in housing equity, respectively.

      While most people over 65 own their home, millions of others in this age group rent. Older renters have even less wealth; at the median, they make up just 2 percent of the net wealth of homeowners their age.

      Accessibility
      Physical accessibility will continue to be a major issue for seniors as well.

      According to the JCHS, 55 percent of people aged 80 and above report having at least one disability. Yet less than 4 percent of American homes are accessible to disabled residents. Few homes have single-floor living, no-step entries, or wide hallways and doorways that accommodate mobility aids such as wheelchairs or walkers. Most also lack other accessibility features, like wheelchair ramps or bathroom grab bars, for example, which can make aging in place safer for disabled seniors.

      Therefore, most older adults who want to age in place will need to make modifications to their homes to protect their safety. Home modifications can be expensive. While some home modifications may be tax deductible, there are few available offsets for the cost.

      Access to Medical Care and Other Services
      Most seniors will likely need long-term care support at some point in their later years. Paying for these services can become a significant financial burden for most older adults, especially if they are already struggling to cover the cost of housing. Securing assistance even with basic daily activities can prove expensive; according to one JCHS analysis, a mere 14 percent of seniors 75 and older can afford a daily visit from a home health aide for support with such tasks as getting dressed.

      In addition, accessing long-term care services often poses its own challenges. For example, older adults seeking long-term care services at home through Medicaid face lengthy waiting lists in many states. Seniors living in rural areas confront additional barriers to accessing necessary medical and safety services, such as a lack of transportation options or high-speed internet.

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        Balancing Cost and Care

        More older adults are living longer and will require care as they age. Yet with prices for housing as well as long-term care increasing, this population often faces an impossible choice between being able to afford their home or their health care.

        Although there are major areas for improvement in housing options for older adults, the report’s authors touch on several public assistance programs that may be of benefit to certain senior populations, including the following:
        Supportive Housing for Veterans
        Through the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program, unhoused veterans can secure vouchers for housing.
        PACE
        The Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE) offers a range of support services for more than 70,000 seniors nationwide who qualify for nursing home care but wish to age in place.
        Medicaid
        Some states have Medicaid programs that will pay family members who care for their aging elders.

        Additional Resources

        Consider consulting with an elder law attorney near you to identify strategies for obtaining more affordable housing as you grow older. Attorneys who specialize in elder care law can assist you with such tasks as shaping a solid plan for your long-term care and determining whether you qualify for services and supports available in your area.

        For further reading, check out the following articles:

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