Aging in Place: Experts Debate Accessibility and Safety Concerns

Experts emphasize home modifications for safe and accessible living as more Americans aged 50+ choose to "age in place." Affordable housing options with accessibility features are scarce, with a stark divide between wealthy and low-income individuals.

Nitish Verma
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Aging in Place: Experts Debate Accessibility and Safety Concerns

Aging in Place: Experts Debate Accessibility and Safety Concerns

As a growing number of Americans in their late 50s and older choose to stay in their homes, experts emphasize the importance of modifications to ensure dwellings remain safe and accessible. This trend, known as "aging in place," has sparked debate among experts, with some arguing it's a form of denial and others believing it's the preferred choice for most older adults.

Why this matters: As the population ages, ensuring safe and accessible housing for older adults is crucial for their health, independence, and overall well-being. Failure to address these concerns could lead to increased healthcare costs, social isolation, and decreased quality of life for millions of Americans.

A majority of Americans prefer to live in their own homes as long as possible, according to an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll. However, skyrocketing housing prices and low mortgage rates that are too good to give up are making it difficult for many older adults to move, turning aging in place into less of a choice.

To create a safe and accessible living environment, experts from the National Institute on Aging and AARP recommend several key home modifications. These include installing a step-free exterior doorway or ramp, adding a walk-in shower with a bench and nonskid surface in the bathroom, relocating the bedroom to the main level if stairs become too difficult, and purchasing kitchen appliances with safety features like automatic shut-offs.

Home improvement chains, contractors, designers, and architects are responding to the growing demand for accessibility upgrades among older adults. Products like inconspicuous safety bars, lower sinks, and residential elevators are becoming more common. Companies such as Toto USA are marketing luxury bidet toilet seats to older people, touting benefits like preventing urinary tract infections and reducing caregiver burden.

However, a stark divide exists between well-heeled boomers who can afford extensive renovations and lower-income individuals struggling to make ends meet. According to a 2023 analysis by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, less than 4% of U.S. homes combine single-floor living with no-step entry and wheelchair-accessible halls and doorways. The study also found that 20% of respondents age 80 and above with incomes below $30,000 reported accessibility challenges, compared to just 11% for those with incomes of $75,000 or more.

Jennifer Molinsky, director of the Joint Center for Housing Studies' Housing an Aging Society program, urges policymakers to address the shortage of affordable housing suitable for older adults. "There are all these options for those people who have a lot of money," Molinsky said. "But there's a lot of disparity. There are people, through no fault of their own or for systemic reasons, who may not have the money to modify."

As the U.S. population continues to age, with people 65 and older expected to outnumber those under 18 by 2034 for the first time in history, the debate surrounding aging in place will only intensify. Ensuring homes are safe, accessible, and affordable for older adults across all income levels will be a critical challenge in the years ahead.

Key Takeaways

  • Aging in place is a growing trend, with most Americans preferring to stay in their homes as they age.
  • Home modifications are crucial for safe and accessible living, including step-free doorways and walk-in showers.
  • Experts recommend key upgrades, such as relocating bedrooms and purchasing safety-feature appliances.
  • Affordability is a major concern, with low-income individuals struggling to make accessibility upgrades.
  • Ensuring safe, accessible, and affordable housing for older adults is a critical challenge for the future.