Build It and They Will Come: Senior Housing Crisis in the U.S.


By Maureen Hewitt

When the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University released a report finding much of the country isn’t prepared to meet the housing needs of older adults, it didn’t come as much of a surprise to those of us who focus on providing healthcare and related services to older adults.

We know there’s a dearth of high-quality, affordable housing available to this group. Much of what is available isn’t designed with the older adult in mind. It’s not easily accessible for those with physical issues or for those who use a wheelchair. Simple things that many of us take for granted—the ability to grab a door knob—can’t be accomplished by some older adults.

Improvements include providing critical features such as no-step entries, extra-wide doorways and lever-style door and faucet handles. It’s often possible to include a dog park—I’m adamant about ensuring older adults keep their pets when they move—a putting green, walking paths and gardens. Most important, these apartments are affordable, specifically targeting older adults with limited incomes.

Making American with Disabilities Act-type adjustments to the physical building make it easier for older adults to live safely, independently and comfortably in their homes or in housing designed to accommodate specific needs.

But most housing isn’t. Today 33 percent of adults 50 and over—including 37 percent of those 80 plus—pay more than 30 percent of their income for homes that may or may not fit their needs, forcing them to cut back on food, healthcare, and, for those 50-64, retirement savings, according to the Harvard study.

The Harvard report also found “disconnects between housing programs and the health care system.” This is important because it puts “many older adults with disabilities or long-term care needs at risk of premature institutionalization.” Something we don’t want happening.

Still, there are promising approaches that address this issue, such as services that bring together affordable housing and healthcare services. For example, those who live in senior-focused apartments may take advantage of health services through a PACE (Program of All-inclusive Care for the Elderly run by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) center, which provides meals, medical and dental services, and activities.

While building apartments designed for seniors is a step in the right direction, we’re learning they can’t be built fast enough to meet the demand. I challenge others to explore this new report and build the facilities that older adults need now and in the future. For if we build it, they will surely come.

Maureen Hewitt, InnovAge President and CEO
Maureen Hewitt, InnovAge President and CEO

Maureen Hewitt is the President and Chief Executive Officer of InnovAge, a Denver-based provider of comprehensive healthcare services for older adults in California, Colorado and New Mexico.  Hewitt has held this role since 2006 and has led for-profit and nonprofit health care organizations for more than 25 years. Hewitt’s experience includes leading skilled nursing/sub-acute care facilities and acute care and rehabilitation hospitals, as well as serving in volunteer board positions.

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