Alternative Senior Housing

For generations, seniors have had limited options for aging: nursing homes, retirement homes, staying home (if they could afford it) or living with a family member.

But, as they have watched their own parents age and decline, today’s seniors are looking for something different. “Aging in place” is their mantra.

What “aging in place” means is that today’s seniors want no part of an old folks home and intend to stay in a residence of their choice, wherever that may be, as long as possible. That includes everything from their own homes, a retirement community, a virtual “village” community, or even in a pre-fab medical cottage, a “granny pod,” in the back yard of a relative’s home.

This definition of “aging in place” carries with it goals of autonomy, independence and self-respect. After all, who wants to be “old” and dependent on others? Yet, as countless seniors have found–especially when they hit their 80’s–independent living is much easier with help, especially with housekeeping, home and yard maintenance, and transportation at the very least.

One Answer for a Growing Older Population

However interpreted, aging in place may be the answer to the growing numbers of Boomers who are hitting retirement (and beyond) age. According to the Census Bureau, that number is expected to nearly double from 35 million in 2000 to more than 78 million by 2030, an increase of about 1.7 million seniors every year.

The “aging in place” movement coincides with a number of changing social trends: people are retiring earlier–55 plus is the new definition for “senior”–and they are living longer and healthier. At the same time, many are working longer, changing jobs and careers, or working part-time just to keep busy or because they need the money. Taken together, there is no one-size-fits-all, or even nearly all, description for today’s seniors, or for how and where they want to live the rest of their lives.

Of course, aging in place means different things to different people. For some retirees, it means remaining in the home where they have raised families and which 72 percent own, according to figures reported in surveys by Merrill Lynch/Age Wave. For others it means moving to another place, preferably one with better weather–southeast states are a favorite destination– and “aging in place” there.

The surveys conducted by Merrill Lynch/Bank of America, in conjunction with Age Wave, also find retirement today is a two-pronged process. The first phase is one of freedom and independence–no longer tied to job and children, free to travel, move wherever desire (and can afford), and enjoy a variety of recreational and cultural activities.

The second phase begins when retirees hit their 80’s and their ability to live truly independently diminishes–maybe due to serious health issues or physical disability. Nearly three quarters of those who are 85 and older–and that’s the fastest growing segment of the population–report problems with some daily activities, such as housework or mobility, the kinds of problems that require modifications to a home or home care help, the surveys show.

Exploring the Options

At this point in their lives, today’s seniors have far more options than their predecessors ever had and, if they are sensible, they have explored those options and taken action before suddenly being forced into assisted living or a nursing home by a health or other emergency.

Ideally some of these basic decisions have been made:

  • Where to live? Same home? Same community?
  • Sharing with others who have similar interests?
  • What kinds of socialization, cultural, and recreational opportunities are important?
  • What about access to health care providers, public and/or private transportation, shopping?
  • How important is closeness to family and friends?

Once such basics are resolved, today’s seniors have a better idea of how they will “age in place,” but recognizing the coming crush of very old seniors, innovators, entrepreneurs and investors are finding ever-more creative ways to tap into this growing market.

To provide a glimpse of what’s out there, here are a few popular options, but you need to be aware that what’s available varies by state, region, and even community, so you have to check (try your local agency on aging as a start) to find what’s available where you live.

These include such time-tested choices as continuing care retirement communities, though the Merrill Lynch survey suggests only 7 percent of today’s seniors make this choice, but also include the nation’s fast growing number of community “villages,” a booming retrofit market to equip homes with the latest safety and monitoring technology, and modular homes, like the “granny pods,” that can be installed in someone’s backyard.

  • Continuing care retirement communities require an initial buy-in, usually for an apartment or duplex, where retirees can enjoy the freedom of independent living without worrying about maintenance and upkeep, then have the option of moving to assisted living, and eventually full-time nursing care when and if needed.
  • Community “Villages” aim to provide the support services residents need to stay in their homes as they age. Though structures differ, for an annual fee, members get help with home maintenance, transportation and other needed services, and also participate in planned recreational, cultural and social activities. Volunteering and looking after each other are keys to village success.
  • Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities (or NORCs) can develop in apartment buildings, small neighborhoods, even trailer parks, wherever people have lived for years, know each other well and are used to helping out whenever a neighbor needs assistance, whether it is transportation to a doctor, shopping, or providing a hot meal.
  • Co-housing is a voluntary, collaborative living arrangement with both private homes and common spaces. Members know and support each other both physically and socially, and in some co-housing communities, members share artistic, spiritual and life/work experiences. Members share meals and also the costs of health care attendants when needed.
  • “Granny Pods” is the nickname for pre-fabricated and fully equipped small dwellings that can be installed in a backyard behind a caregiver’s home. A growing number of firms in different parts of the country design and install these auxiliary dwelling units. MEDCottage, designed by N2Care in Virginia, is a pioneer.

Today’s aging population has far more options for their retirement years to consider than their parents ever had, or even than they might have had several decades ago. As entrepreneurs and innovators take advantage of the growing challenge of housing and caring for today’s seniors and the upcoming numbers of retiring Boomers and provide even more options, “aging in place” will cease to be a goal but will be a reality for Americas’ seniors.