Housing Overview

Housing Overview

The decision where to live is one of the most important choices seniors make when deciding how to meet their changing needs. The quality of their housing, neighborhood, and the communities they live in influence whether they have satisfying and rewarding lifestyles and achieve their everyday needs.

Housing is so intimately linked with the comings and goings of seniors that it can give us clues about their well-being. Changes in how seniors occupy or use their homes may signal changes in their physical and mental capabilities. A fall on the stairs, signs of housing neglect, or poorly maintained landscaping may be an indications that a senior is having difficulty adapting to problems related to aging.

With appropriate financial means, family support, staffing, supportive services and care, innovative technological resources, and a flexible regulatory environment, even the most physically and cognitively impair seniors can live in most residential settings. These range from the conventional family home to more specialized group residential care settings, such as congregate living facilities, assisted living facilities, and continuing care retirement communities (Goland, 1994; 2002b). A critical question is not only whether the senior's housing situation provides sufficient personal assistance and nursing care, but also whether it offers too much help in an overly protective environment (Golant, 1991).

Many factors should be considered when making decisions about housing for seniors, the following list may be helpful:

  • owner or renter. Is the housing owned or rented, and is that status in the best interests of the older person?
  • affordability. To what extent are housing costs a financial burden on the household?
  • asset wealth. How necessary will it be for the senior to rely on the equity in the residence (selling value of dwelling after a mortgage is paid off) to meet future financial needs?
  • Physical comfort. Is the residence a comfortable place to live, as indicated by the number of rooms and their sizes, inside temperatures, noise level, lighting, colors, furniture, ambiance, sources of stimulation, and other architectural and design features?
  • maintenance/upkeep. Does the residence appear to be well maintained, as judged by working appliances, air and heating systems, plumbing and electrical systems, condition of roof, and myriad other structural and operating features?
  • ease of use and safety. Can the senior easily and safely use all the space and features of the residence, including upper floors or a basement, cupboards, bathroom and kitchen fixtures, windows, and parking garage? Does the residence and neighborhood setting minimize the Seniors risk of falling, being a crime or fire victim, having a pedestrian or auto accident, and confronting other potential threats? Can a senior easily access emergency help?
  • access to everyday needs. Can the senior easily reach shopping, doctors, clinics, restaurants, dry cleaning, barbers or hairdressers, and other everyday needs?
  • source of privacy. Does the residential setting offer the senior a desirable level of privacy where, if desired, the senior can avoid being seen, heard, or administratively monitored?
  • personal possessions. How important to the senior are his or her personal possessions, such as furniture, dishes, paintings, photographs, knickknacks, hobby collections, or similar memorabilia?
  • memories and attachment qualities. How important are the residence and neighborhood as sources of important memories and valued attachments?
  • a controlled environment. Does the senior feel independent and in control of his or her surroundings?
  • enjoyable lifestyles. Are there good nearby opportunities for the senior to pursue leisure, recreational, and social activities? Is desirable part-time employment available?
  • compatible and supportive social relationships. Are key family members and friends geographically accessible?
  • congenial social context for the life stage. Is the resident age mix of the building or neighborhood desirable?
  • composition. Is the ethnic, racial, and religious composition of the residents in the building or neighborhood desirable for the senior who may choose to move there?
  • large geographic context. Is the surrounding settlement of the residence and neighborhood desirable-its city, suburban, or rural features; its population and land use density, and its closeness to nature (mountains, oceans, and amount of open space)?
  • supportive services, care, and assistance. Is the senior receiving good quality care and assistance consistent with the seriousness of his or her physical and cognitive frailties and chronic health problems?

 Staying Put, Aging in Place, or Moving: Fundamental Decisions of Seniors

Seniors move less frequently from their current housing than any other age group (Schachter, 2004). This residential inertia is not surprising. They typically own their dwellings (80 percent of seniors do) and most occupy comfortable quarters in familiar neighborhoods and communities. Often they are also psychologically attached to their homes, which symbolize their having "made it" (Golant, 1984, 2003).

Seniors who develop physical or cognitive impairments are especially unequivocal about staying put. Nursing homes and even more desirable alternatives, such  as assisted living facilities, are last on their list of choices. They prefer to remain in their familiar homes where they can package together a combination of family assistance with home and community-based professional care. This has given rise to the concept of aging with choice (also called aging in place). The phrase aging with choice involves more than seniors simply staying in their homes. It also implies that seniors can cope successfully with their vulnerabilities, either by themselves or with the assistance of family or professional care givers (Golant, 2004).

Professionals and scholars often romanticize the desirability of seniors staying in their own homes. However, doing so can have several downsides, even for healthy and active seniors (Golant, 2003; U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2003a). For example:

  • an excessive share of seniors' monthly incomes may go to pay for their housing expenditures.
  • homes purchased much earlier in life may now be much larger than needed.
  • housing may be in physical disrepair, making for an uncomfortable or unsafe setting.
  • residences may lack design features (for example, grab bars, accessible closets) appropriate for a less agile, older resident.
  • residences may be older and poorly insulated, making them very expensive to heat or cool.
  • familiar neighbors may have moved away.
  • without a car in a suburban or rural setting, seniors may find it very difficult to reach desired locations.
  • neighborhoods may have become unsafe to walk alone.

Seniors staying in their homes and also trying to cope with their physical and cognitive declines may have difficulties for these reasons:

  • family care givers or hired care professionals may be unavailable when needed.
  • family members may be inept care givers.
  • care giving demands may simply be too demanding or difficult to fulfill.
  • seniors or family members may find it too costly to hire the amount of necessary professional care to address impairment needs.
  • family members may psychologically or physically abuse an older person.
  • even if care giving needs will be satisfied, seniors may feel alone or socially isolated much of the time.

Just as the concept of seniors staying in their own homes defies simple generalizations, moving can be disruptive and stressful, but also regarding, satisfying, and empowering. This is not surprising, given that older people move for at least four different reasons (Longino, 2002):

  • amenity moves. Seniors desire a new location that better fits their changing recreational or leisure lifestyle preferences (for example, moving to an active adult retirement community or to a rural county close to the mountains).
  • environmental modification moves. Seniors want to relocate to a home that is smaller and easier to maintain, or to a neighborhood closer to everyday needs that is safer or more socially compatible.
  • light assistance moves. Seniors want or need a residential setting that offers light housekeeping, meals, and a little personal assistance.
  • heavy assistance moves. Seniors require a residential setting that offers a lot of personal assistance and often nursing care.

 The information above is reprinted from Working with Seniors: Health, Financial and Social Issues with permission from Society of Certified Senior Advisors® . Copyright © 2009. All rights reserved. www.csa.us