Concern for Seniors Cuts Across Party Lines
Leading up to the November 8 election, the political climate has been pretty contentious! But here's something most everyone can agree on: The population of seniors in the U.S. is growing, and so is the need to support healthy living for our elders.
Recently, a report from the Bipartisan Policy Center called attention to the issue of senior housing. The Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to "combine the best ideas from both parties to promote health, security and opportunity for all Americans."
The report was created by the BPC's Senior Health and Housing Task Force, which is headed by two former secretaries of Housing and Urban Development, Republican Mel Martinez and Democrat Henry Cisneros, along with former U.S. Representatives Vin Weber (R-MN) and Allyson Schwartz (D-PA).
The report, titled "Healthy Aging Begins at Home," urged the government to address the housing challenges and resulting health implications faced by U.S. seniors. The Task Force reported that:
- Today, there are 47.8 million seniors in the U.S.; by 2050, there will be 87.9 million.
- People older than 85 are the fastest-growing demographic group.
- 88 percent of seniors say they would like to remain in their current residence as long as possible, and 89 percent would like to stay in their same local community.
The Task Force highlights some serious challenges these seniors will face:
- Almost all of us will suffer from at least one chronic health condition as we grow older, and 70 percent of us will need long-term services and support during our lives, such as help with eating, bathing and dressing.
- There is a shortage of affordable housing for older adults. Housing is the largest expenditure for many seniors, and few have saved enough to cover both their healthcare and their housing costs. Many never recovered from the recession, and today more home-owning seniors are still making house payments.
- Few of today's homes are senior-friendly. Most houses and apartments lack single-floor living, accessible switches and outlets, no-step entries and other features that remove barriers for people with disabilities.
And here's another sobering statistic: Today, more than 44,000 older adults are homeless.
The Task Force's recommendations to improve the situation for seniors:
Build more affordable, age-friendly housing for older adults. The Task Force recommends the establishment of a new senior housing program, as well as tax policies that encourage the building of low-income housing. They also call for assistance with home modifications for older adults, as well as land-use policies that would allow for more senior-friendly housing, such as "mother-in-law" structures and group homes.
Take an interdisciplinary approach to senior housing. This would include architectural design, transportation, urban planning—and especially the integration of senior housing and healthcare, which would allow elders to receive care in their home, and which recognizes that a senior's home is an important element of senior health. The report highlighted existing, innovative senior-living models where services can be provided, such as the Village Movement and naturally occurring retirement communities (NORCs).
Increase the implementation of technologies that support senior wellness. Some are on the horizon and some exist now, such as telehealth, fall-monitoring systems, memory-support technologies, and increased availability of internet access and training to allow seniors to take advantage of social networking and other online wellness opportunities.
What about the cost?
The BPC acknowledged that several of its recommendations would require increased public spending. But many of these steps also have the potential to be cost-efficient and lower healthcare spending. For example, care provided at home is much less costly than nursing home care. And the Task Force reported that one-third of all seniors fall each year, resulting in $34 billion each year in healthcare costs. Equipping a home with handrails is a lot cheaper than a stay in the hospital!
Why does it seem that this is one of the rare issues that people of most every political stripe can agree upon? Most likely it is because almost all of us have senior relatives and friends. Many of us are caregivers, so we know what elder care entails. And, if we're lucky enough to live as long as those loved ones, we too will experience the challenges of senior living. As the Task Force pointed out, we spend more time at home as we grow older. Will our homes support our well-being?