The most serious barrier to aging in place may be money

Everyone knows that the “older” generations want to age in place. And in response to that demand, a multi-billion dollar industry has been created…and is steadily growing. There’s now a dazzling menu of features that can make your home more suitable for aging, from architectural features to tech-driven facilities like “smart” diagnostics.

But as this thoughtful article points out, all these new things are landing into a housing supply that’s not necessarily designed to receive them. Installing them can be expensive. And there’s a serious rich-poor divide. “Aging in place” may turn out to be a financial challenge rather than a tech or product development issue.

The article highlights highlighting how few homes can currently accommodate older residents: “While about 94 percent of the 115 million homes in the U.S. had at least one aging-accessible feature, a 2020 Census Bureau report shows that just 10 percent were ready to accommodate older residents. In other words, they had an entryway with no steps, a bedroom and bathroom on the first floor, and one or more bathroom accessibility features.”

The article also cites a Census Bureau report that “almost 30% of older adult already have trouble using some part of their home without assistance. That might mean getting up stairs, turning stiff faucets, getting into or out of their shower, or reaching kitchen cabinets. That makes it not terribly surprising that about 1 in 3 adults say they will need to make major repairs or modifications as they or other family members age, according to the 2021 Home and Community Preference Survey from AARP.”

The list of modifications has no surprises: 79% anticipate making bathroom modifications, 70% plan for home access modifications at the entrance or inside, and 60% are looking to install a medical emergency response system.

But can they pay for it?

“As of 2019, more than 10 million households headed by someone aged 65 or older were cost-burdened (in other words, they spent more than one-third of their income on housing). About half of those households had spent more than 50 percent of their income on housing. People of color, renters, people with low incomes and the oldest age groups were disproportionately affected.”

Money isn’t the only variable. Where you age in place can also make a big difference.

“It helps to live in places where houses are more likely to have features that are better for older Americans. In the mid-Atlantic, for instance, just 6 percent of homes have accessibility features that are naturally part of the area’s home style, according to census data. That’s compared to 14 percent of homes in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas that were aging-ready.

“One issue is the number of floors a home has. Multistory homes are more common in New England and the mid-Atlantic, where they make up about 90 percent of housing units in those areas. Why? Less land, for one. So instead of going out, houses went up. Out West and down South, where land is more readily available, single-story homes are more typical (and also cheaper to cool in warmer climates).”

This would make modifications homes in the Northeast more expensive because you’d more often be working with an older home and a home which has bedrooms and full bathrooms on the second floor.

On the other hand, the dollar value of your equity might be higher in the Northeast markets, and you would have some scope to convert that equity into cash for the necessary renovation.

Clearly, we need to do a lot more work on assessing the bridge between all the exciting “aging in place” products and services (particularly tech-driven) and the affordability question. The number of people who can afford all the bells and whistles, and will pay to acquire them, will add up to a massive (and highly profitable) market. But what about those who are left behind?

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