By the year 2050, the population of Americans aged 65 and older will have more than doubled to nearly 90 million—a growth rate faster than any other age group in the country, according to the Center for Housing Policy. In a new report, whose title asks "Housing an Aging Population—Are We Prepared?" and concludes that as a country we are not, the center explores the implications of the ballooning number of seniors, what current demographic trends mean for the future, and what policies and actions might help abate "the coming crisis."

Many of the trends likely to be most formative among the senior population in coming years, according to the report, pivot on the financial implications of entering retirement years. Currently, one in four households with a member aged 85 or older—a group whose population will more than triple by 2050—spends at least half of its income on housing, as do one in five households with a member aged 65 to 74.

This older population is also living longer, which will increase the number of elderly persons living with a disability. "Some studies indicate that one in four older adults is likely to have a lower body limitation that requires a modification to the entry to their homes, inside their home, or in the bathroom," the report says. And as lower-income households are the most likely to have disabilities, the need for accessible housing built for low- and moderate-income households will be great.

But while much of the solution will have to do with housing policies and zoning boards, the private home building sector will play a critical roll, says Jeffrey Lubell, executive director of the Center for Housing Policy and one of the study’s authors. "It’s important for the private sector to try to anticipate the need and respond with a product that will work," he says. "It provides an opportunity."

In communities where builders provide a mix of products that can accommodate aging citizens at a range of income levels while giving them access to the support they need, he says, demand will be great. "The key here is designing communities with services, reaching out and forming partnerships with service providers and agencies. ...  The data suggest that people 85 and older are open to moving into some nontraditional housing types, such as multifamily housing with services."

Failure to do so will likely result in a growing percentage of this rapidly expanding group having to rely on social services for institutionalized care. "Medicare is paying for nursing homes, so it’s a lot cheaper to provide services at home," he says.

The challenge for builders is the breadth of services required, which could include assistance with getting dressed to help cooking meals to transportation services. "Your standard home builder is not going to be in a position to provide these things directly, so if they want to really capture this market, they can partner with organizations that can provide those services," Lubell says.

Another part of the solution may be more multigenerational households, which are still a relatively small percentage of the population (currently only 4.4% of households have three or more generations living under one roof, according to the report), but the segment is growing more rapidly than households at large: Between 2000 and 2010, the total number of U.S. households increased by 11% while the ranks of multigenerational households were up 21%. However, given the complications of the Great Recession, "we’re not entirely sure what’s happening, and there are a lot of questions about what will happen once the economy improves," Lubell says.

One home design trend that "really has legs going forward," he says, is the increased focus on ultra-flexible floor plans able to accommodate a range of household scenarios. "It’s not that traditional families won’t be there. Really what we have going forward is a much more diverse housing market where there will be more demand for housing near transit centers and where older adults can get what they need without getting in a car or even getting on mass transit," he says. "The population is changing, and traditional homes might be harder to sell in some markets."

Claire Easley is a senior editor at Builder.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Greenville, SC.