Aging in Place a Challenge for Low-Income Seniors, If They Still Have a Place

Looking back to Older Americans Month, I seized on one hardship that too many of the celebrated suffer — food insecurity and outright malnutrition.

That’s not the only reason why the so-called golden years aren’t so golden for a lot of seniors. Another that looms even larger is unaffordable (or no) housing.

Acute Affordable Housing Shortage

Last month brought us a new report from the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Senior Health and Housing Task Force. As you’d guess, it focuses on the urgent need for more affordable housing suitable for seniors and the implications for their health and our country’s healthcare system.

We know, of course, about the shortage of housing that the lowest-income renters can afford. There were about 11.3 million of them in 2013, including 2.6 million elderly singles or couples. The market lacked about 6.9 million units that were both affordable and available to rent.

But not all those units would suit the needs of seniors who’ve developed (or always had) difficulties moving around without walkers or wheelchairs.

Only 3.8% of all housing units in the country have design features to accommodate moderate mobility limitations, the task force co-chairs say. These, note, are not necessarily affordable for lower-income people or available for anybody to buy or rent.

Higher-income people can afford to have features in their homes modified, e.g., doors widened, ramps built. They can have doorknobs and turn-on faucets replaced with levers if their hands have weakened or stiffened.

Or they can move to an apartment that has such features — even, if they choose, an assisted living facility where they can age in place, with increasing services as they need them. About 70% ultimately will for even such basic daily tasks as bathing, dressing and taking prescribed medications.

But an estimated 1.8 million seniors paid more than half their income for rent two years ago — an upward trend that’s unlikely to turn around on its own.

They’re already short on money for food, transportation and their share of medical costs — an especially big bite of the budget, as we can see from how they boost the more accurate senior poverty rate.

Seems the crunch will worsen as more people live long enough to become seniors — and longer thereafter. An estimated 1.8 million more senior households — a total of 6.5 million — will have less than $15,000 a year to live on by 2024, the Harvard Joint Center on Housing Studies reports.

The Bipartisan Policy Center’s task force recommends more affordable housing for seniors, including a new, special form of supportive housing — supports here being in-home health care and help with those other daily tasks.

The only federal program specifically for this sort of housing has had no funds for grants to develop new units since 2012. And contracts that keep an estimated 41,900 affordable will have expired within the next eight years.

What the task force doesn’t address is the income side of the equation, beyond recommending state and local programs to defray senior homeowners’ costs.

There’d be fewer seniors struggling to pay for rent if they’d gotten paid enough while working to have had income left over for long-term savings.

There’d be fewer if Social Security retirement benefits for former low-wage workers were higher — a forward-looking policy change already teed up by leading Democrats (and predictably trashed on by the Washington Post, among others).

There’d be fewer if the Earned Income Tax Credit didn’t exclude most workers over 65 — and do so little for childless workers.

As things stand now, a very large number of seniors and prospective seniors who hope to age in place will have a hard time doing that without risks to their health.

And the risks they knowingly take to cut costs — skimping on meals or skipping doses of medication, for example — may not save enough for them continue paying for their own place.

Rising Tide of Homelessness

Homelessness is, of course, the end result of the affordable housing shortage for some seniors, as well as younger people. Recent months have brought us several articles on the aging of America’s homeless population.

Both The New York Times and ThinkProgress.org focus on seniors living on the streets or the equivalent. Many have been homeless for a long time and suffer from serious health problems, including substance abuse.

Some, however, became homeless only after a fairly recent setback — often a job loss, but sometimes other problems, e.g., a stroke that forced a woman to leave her subsidized unit because the building had no elevator.

Long-term and newly-homeless older people have shifted the profile of our country’s homeless population. Nearly a third of those counted two years ago were at least 50 years old — a 20% increase since 2007, the Times reports.

A 2010 analysis by the National Alliance to End Homelessness concluded that senior homelessness would increase by 33% within the next 10 years, assuming no significant changes in population or poverty rates.

By 2050, more than 95,270 seniors would be homeless, according to the Alliance’s projection — unless, of course, policymakers invest significantly more in affordable housing and in cash or cash-equivalent benefits.

Even the little I’ve pulled together here shows we’ve got the tools in the toolbox. What we seemingly don’t have is the political will to make them sufficient to the needs of homeless and at-risk seniors.

Nor those who’ll have a good chance of becoming seniors, if they don’t become homeless first. So if we’re going to celebrate Older Americans Month, we ought to put more money where our mouths are.

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