Jay Eldridge is an urban planner, real estate developer, and advocate with Rebuilding Together, a national organization involved in renovating homes for seniors and persons with disabilities.  He explains why the current housing market isn't prepared to meet the needs of tomorrow's mature buyers.

I have been an Urban Planner (1960 graduate of Michigan State University) for the last 48 years and a real estate developer for the last 28 years. Most recently I have been searching for a single family home  -- new or used -- for myself.  I am 72 years old and would like to find a home I can stay in for as long as possible, including when I might be confined to the use of a walker or a wheelchair.  This has proven to be a daunting task; every home I have looked at has had obstacles that would be difficult and costly to overcome.  I am sure I am not the exception to the rule. 
Reviewing the latest single family home plans in the last three issues of BUILDER has moved me to question why architects designing single-family homes, apartments and condos have not recognized that they should be designing homes that have longer-term viability as residences.  Most of the last 180 house plans featured in the magazine required 2 to 8 steps to gain access to the main living floor;  in one instance, 17 steps. Based on this short-sightedness, we are forcing elderly or handicapped people out of their homes prematurely. 

Medical advances have created an increasingly aging population. If we do not wake up to this fact, we will soon see a growing inventory of obsolete homes and a shortage of homes that truly meet the needs of older residents.

Remember the Baby Boomers?  Well, they are reaching senior age.  The first wave born in 1946 will turn 65 in 2011.  And I believe single family residential architects and builders have been asleep at the switch. 

In his 1989 book, Age Wave - The Challenges and Opportunities of an Aging America, author Ken Dychtwald describes the “Senior Boom” as an event that began to impact our country after World War Two.  In 1900, the median age was 22.9 with a life expectancy of 47.3 years.  Those reaching the age of 65 or older -- about 3,000,000 -- represented only 4.1 percent of the nation’s total population.  By 2000, that age group grew to represent 12.4 percent of the total population, or 34,991,753 persons.  By the year 2050, they will represent 20.2 percent of the country’s total population or 88,547,000 people. If you include those between the ages of 55 and 65, the number jumps to 31.1 percent of the population, or 136,658,000 people. 
Take away the option of dwellings built specifically for senior citizens in senior restricted buildings or communities and it’s nearly impossible in today's market to find a used or new home that will allow you and your family to live in it for the rest of your lives if you so choose.  The reason is that builders and architects continue to build homes the same old way they always have, ignoring the tenets of “Ease of Accessibility and Usability” for those who become handicapped to one degree or another.

Think about independence, dignity and control. The perfect single family home should have the following physical features:

  • No-step entries to access the home’s main level, garage or outdoor living space. The walkway leading from the sidewalk or driveway to the front entrance should accommodate someone who uses a wheelchair or has trouble climbing steps.

  • All critical living spaces required for primary residents located on the main level: master bedroom, kitchen, laundry room, dining/living/great room space, and a home office or study. The home should also provide main floor access to utilities such as furnace, water heater, electric panel, controls for the irrigation system, alarm system, etc.

  • All doors and hallways should be a minimum width of 3 feet.

  • Master bathroom shower should be a walk-in with a built-in bench and grab bar.

  • Toilets: comfort height with grab bars in all bathrooms.

  • Rocker switches in place of other types of electrical switches. Outlets should be positioned at heights that are convenient for the able-bodied as well as for individuals in wheelchairs. 

  • All doors should have lever handles instead of doorknobs - both interior and exterior.

  • Kitchen and bathroom sinks should have single action faucet levers.

  • Good lighting in stairwells, hallways, work areas (such as the kitchen) and reading areas.

  • Thresholds should be slightly beveled rather than raised, so that navigating in a wheelchair or walker is easier.  This eliminates a common tripping hazard.

  • Outdoor living spaces should be wheelchair accessible as well.

  • Stairways should have handrails on both sides. 

  • Hallways should be designed with backing so railings can be added if needed.

  • All of the above features will accommodate not only residents, but also to any relatives or friends with mobility or sight issues who visit your home.

As baby boomers retire, they're choosing to retire in their own homes, unlike their parents did.  Over the past few years there has been an increase in the number of people whose preference is to live independently rather than in a senior restricted building or community or assisted-living facility.   This is why “aging-in-place” design has begun to attract so much attention. Clients can stay in their existing homes longer by making the home more accessible using aging-in-place techniques.  But retrofitting an existing home can be an expensive proposition. 
The question builders need to ask themselves is: Do I want to appeal to the largest market pool possible, or do I want to limit who my potential buyers will be?  Increasingly, it appears that the turmoil in the housing market may also tie more and more seniors to homes they are unable to sell.

Stephen Golant, a gerontologist and geographer who teaches at the University of Florida, sums up the situation well: "One of the unwritten tragedies of the current housing price collapse is that for a host of reasons [e.g., money, job security, depreciated properties], a higher share of older Americans will be 'forced' to age in place, who might otherwise have considered alternative housing arrangements."

As we age, the day-to-day challenges of getting around will most likely increase, whether it’s a simple thing such as turning a doorknob, or more complex tasks such as taking a shower or navigating a stairway. Often, people wait until a stroke, heart attack, hip replacement, or other crisis occurs before thinking about housing adjustments. Such hasty decisions can end up being unattractive and costly.

Awareness of these issues is rising, according to Peter Bell, executive director of the National Aging in Place Council. "Boomers may be more cognizant of the need to plan ahead because they have had to deal with their parents in a reaction mode."

By next year, the average life expectancy for Americans will be 78.3 years. By 2050 it will reach 83 years. Improved medicine and life saving operations are prolonging our lifespans, and also are improving our ability to stay mobile and active longer.

Builders have been making most of their money from baby boomers the past several decades or more. If they want to continue to tap a large segment of America’s population, they need to find new ways to meet the needs of not only this aging clientele, but future generations as well.